11 June 2001

Southern Africa: Eclipse Diary

on route — This is the first of a series of diary entires from members of an observation team for the solar eclipse on June 21, 2001.

On June 21 the moon's shadow will sweep across the Southern Hemisphere. Observers throughout Sub-Saharan Africa will see part of the sun blotted out by the black disk of the moon, while those in a narrow corridor, stretching from the middle of the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar, will watch the entire disk of the sun disappear behind the moon for about two to four minutes.

This complete disappearance of the sun behind the moon is called a total solar eclipse. The total solar eclipse of June 21 will be visible in a strip that begins in the South Atlantic, crosses Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Madagascar and ends in the Indian Ocean.

Total eclipses are useful for scientists who study the sun, because they allow astronomers to see parts of the sun's atmosphere normally hidden by the blue light of the sky and only visible from space. Among the many amateur and professional astronomers traveling from all over the world to view the eclipse is a team from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA. Although I'm a student at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, I'm on the team as a Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium Summer Fellow.

Preparations for the observation team leaving from Williams College have been extensive. With a little over 24 hours left before our departure from Boston's Logan airport, astrophysics major Mike Gioiello and I carried 31 boxes containing over 1600 pounds of telescopes, lenses, electronic imaging devices, computers and other equipment down to the ground floor from the third floor "eclipse room".

The smallest box I carried was one of the heaviest, it being filled with lead counterweights for telescope tripods. A detailed packing list was kept so that pieces of a device scattered in half a dozen boxes may be reunited easily on the roof of the hotel in Lusaka where we will do our observing.

All this effort is focused on three and a half minutes of totality, but the data we gather during those minutes will improve upon the picture of the sun provided by multi-million-dollar spacecraft.

On Sunday we loaded up a bus with the boxes and the team members for the drive across the state to the airport, leaving behind the quiet mountains of western Massachusetts for three bustling cities, Boston, London, and finally Lusaka.

Eclipse Diary, Part 2 | Eclipse Diary, Part 3

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