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MKAS TRIP TO SEE THE TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE OF AUGUST 1999
The path of Totality began at local sunrise, 09h30m UT out in the Atlantic Ocean South of Newfoundland and then it continued through Europe and Asia including the UK , France Germany Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and India. The track finally finished at Local sunset, 12h 36m UT in the bay of Bengal. The maximum track width was up to 69 miles and the greatest height of the eclipsed Sun at totality was about 59 degrees. The maximum duration of totality was 2mins 23 seconds.

From MKAS’s perspective the morning of August 11th saw Andy Stewart with his 6 inch Newtonian Reflector down at Riverside Park in Rainham. He was the only MKAS member there but a large number of people were keen to see the partially eclipsed Sun through his telescope which was fitted with Baade film for them to view it safely. Many of them purchased eclipse glasses from him and were asking questions. At maximum phase which was at around 11.20am BST (10h 20m UT) when about 96% of the Sun was covered, Andy said the sky darkened somewhat and he also noticed it felt cooler.

Coming to the total eclipse itself, my wife Val and I set off from Rainham in the early hours of Friday morning July 30. After an overnight stay in Ilminster in Somerset we arrived at around midday Saturday July 31 at our guest house near Penryn in Cornwall. It was from the garden near the central track that we hoped to witness the eclipse. Prior to the event itself I would just like to mention our visit to Truro on Aug 5th. It is a very nice city with a beautiful cathedral. The sky was a rich blue on that day. Positioning myself in the Cathedral’s shadow I was able to see Venus in my 10x50 binoculars. In the glasses the little silver white crescent shape was obvious but the seeing was so good that I could discern the planet’s starlike point clearly with the unaided eye. The time then, GMT was 13.20pm

On Eclipse morning, the 11th from our guest house the weather could have hardly been worse. The sky was heavily overcast throughout. In the circumstances I did what I could to visually monitor the light level and to try and detect any temperature changes. I had prepared a series of drawings beforehand showing the Sun as a white circle with a blackened Moon blotting out ever increasing chunks of it. The time of each appearance was shown. When 30% of the Sun was covered there was no change in the surrounding light level that I could detect or change of temperature. This was still the case when 50% of the Sun was covered. The small print on page 13 of my 1999 B A A handbook could still be read normally. When 65% of the Sun was covered, the above still applied. There was no change when 70% of the Sun was covered although at this moment a cool breeze sprang up. At 80% coverage the surrounding light was gloomy but no darker than a normal very overcast day. By 85% coverage it was distinctly gloomy but it was difficult to be sure how much was due to very thick cloud cover.

For all that the light level was still bright enough for my Son and Daughter then aged 18 and 12 respectively to play badminton in the garden. Our Guest House was close to a busy road. By 90% cover the traffic which at this time would normally have been unbroken was almost non existent. The light level was like the onset of a very heavy storm. At 95% cover, 11h 07m BST local time, (10h 07m UT), the light level was very gloomy though I could still read the small print of my handbook easily. A car passed on the adjacent road with its headlights on. By 11h 08m BST the darkness was noticeable. By 11h 09m it was more noticeable. By 11h 10m the darkness was very obvious. Then we saw the one phenomenon that the total cloud cover could not hide. During the last 20 seconds the surrounding light dropped catastrophically as if it was being turned down by a dimmer switch. At 11h 11m BST, (10h 11m UT) totality itself, it was very dark, darker than any thunderstorm, although it was not as dark as night. The small print in my handbook was just about readable. It was not warm anyway and I was preoccupied observing the light level but my wife Val noticed the temperature drop and the birds fly to their trees. The moment totality finished 2 minutes later the normal light level returned very abruptly.

Other MKAS members in Cornwall fared somewhat better weatherwise. Amanda Peters told me that she was on the beach at Penzance on the 11th with Peter Bassett, Amanda and Brian and Peggy Van d Peer. As with me, cloud hid the Sun from them completely except for a brief glimpse of the final partial phase after totality and shortly before the end of the eclipse. During totality itself, Amanda observed a bright yellow line on the horizon out at sea which she thought was the approaching daylight. As totality descended a load of seagulls nearby which had been quiet and still before suddenly flew away squawking noisily.

Hugo Mozz and Mike Phillips were in Falmouth. Hugo was recording the reaction of the people around which ranged from tears to elation. As with myself, and Amanda Peters they too were clouded out but Mike Phillips did glimpse totality for a few seconds in a cloud break and he saw some prominences. It was so brief that Hugo who was adjusting his camera and not looking at the sky, missed it.

Other members of our society who had gone to France were more fortunate. Bob Tollervey was with friends in France 60 miles east of Paris. Observing half way between Reims and Epernay they were about midway between the central track and the Southern limit. He projected the Sun with a three inch refractor right up until first contact. Cloud and rain had threatened to spoil the big moment, - Bob said at one point that they had had to hold an umbrella over the telescope. Miraculously the cloud dispersed in time to leave blue sky for totality itself. Bob saw Baileys Beads and the Corona with the naked eye. He remembered the sky during totality was a slate grey though not completely dark. He said it was seeing this eclipse that had inspired him to take up Astronomy.

Further observations were made by MKAS members from France. On the evening of August10th Ken Baker drove Graham Curtis and David Steel in his Merc down to Dover where they got the one-minute past midnight ferry to Calais. From there they drove at least 100 miles to Fechamp, a town some 30 miles to the west of Dieppe on the north French coast. Like me they were close to the central track. When they were nearly there they were stopped by French Gendarmes. It seems the site at Fechamp had laid on coaches though our intrepid travellers did not realise this then. They were just directed to park in a large field. The field was very uneven and Ken was fearful, Graham said, for his Merc’s suspension. They did not speak French and the Gendarmes spoke no English. However things were not all bad. They had a nice breakfast on their arrival in Fechamp between 5am and 6am on the 11th but then they found that they had to walk up the steep hill to the Eclipse observing site itself. This task was not made easier by having to hump their equipment which included cameras binoculars and tripods. From the cliff top site they could see out to sea. There were a lot of others there as well on the big day all hopeful of seeing the eclipse.

For our intrepid MKAS group, the time seemed to drag. As the partial phase of the eclipse commenced there was real concern at the large amount of cloud about. Graham monitored the eclipse’s partial phase progress through a small Solar diagonal filter he’d brought along. Ken projected the Sun using one of his binoculars as a monocular. This was all through brief cloud gaps. Out at sea the Ships and yachts were lit up by Sunshine. It was at this point that Graham, Ken and David wondered if they’d chosen the wrong place to observe? Fortunately the cloud obscuring the Sun dissipated at the onset of totality. A loud cheer went up. Graham and Ken independently thought the moon seemed blacker than the surrounding sky. The Corona extended from about a quarter to a half a Solar Radii away from the Sun, Graham and Ken thought. Ken said that the Corona looked white. Graham could see Red coloured Solar prominences and they both saw Baileys Beads and the Diamond Ring. Ken said the most obvious Prominence which he described as red in colour was in an approximate 4o’clock position. Another less conspicuous one was between 10 and 11 o’clock position.

During totality Graham noticed that the temperature dropped. Ken said the drop was dramatic and he and Graham noticed that all the birds went quiet. Ken said the effect was eerie and he remembered a gentle breeze springing up. Flares were released by one of the ships out at sea and two jet fighters flew over. Of the Stars and planets visible during totality, Graham, Ken and David saw Venus,- magnitude –3.9 and 15 degrees to the left (east) of the Sun. All three agreed that this planet at least was a very easy naked eye object. David said it was easy-peezy. Ken thought the planet was as bright as Spica (which appears (mag +1.0 in a dark sky). None of them saw Mercury. For the record Mercury 18 degrees to the right (west) of the Sun at mag +0.8 was seen by members of Croydon AS and other societies from Turkey. Graham also saw one or two stars with the naked eye to the right and below the Sun looking inland which would have been south. This is consistent with the positions of Sirius, Procyon Betelgeuse and Rigel but Graham was unsure which ones they were as they were seen in isolation. David saw one or two other stars as well with the naked eye.

Ken saw a brightish star to the south below the Sun which he was sure was Sirius,- magnitude -1.4. He said it was fairly easy to see with the naked eye. Ken also saw a fainter star which he thought may be Procyon. Towards the end of totality, the crowd really came to life. One man was playing a trumpet, and another was juggling with fire. This all occurred against a background of cheering. All three of them noticed how fast normal light levels returned as totality finished. The sky also became clearer and it became much warmer.

It was a long day and after the eclipse as they drove back to Calais and caught the 8pm ferry back to Dover.



Article by Peter Parish

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