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The Webfooted Astronomer - September 1999


70 Seconds of Totality, and Fruit of the Vine Make for a Great Day

by Fred Quarnstrom

Six of us arrived in Paris on August 8 to be ready for the eclipse on the 11th. Weather reports were less than encouraging. We had chosen France knowing that there was about a 40 percent chance of clouds. However, if we were clouded out at least we were in a great place for a vacation.

We had considered Eastern Turkey. However, who wants to go there in August. It would probably be hotter than the gates of Hell with few of the amenities of Paris. We checked out the area on Monday and Tuesday. The freeways were great traffic moved at 120 to 150 kilometers per hour.

Weather reports looked like going to the East would be best. With the speed of traffic we could go the whole way to Germany if necessary. We woke up the morning of the eclipse to rain and a solid overcast. Reports were that we would do better Northwest of Paris. I almost decided to stay and watch it on TV. There were to be several planes with cameras that were to feed live images to TV. We were here to see the eclipse so we loaded into the minivan and started North. The freeways were a parking lot.

After two-hours we had got to the path of totality at an average speed of 18 kph. It was close to first contact and there were a few breaks in the clouds, so we got off the freeway to find a place to set up. We were a few kilometers from the small village of Meru about 30 K North of Paris.

A two lane road led toward the most blue sky and soon dead-ended in a school parking lot. I had my homemade tracking table that I could control in elevation and azimuth . I mounted two video cameras on the mount. One at about 200 mm telephoto and the other about 3000 mm.

I had planned to download images to my laptop computer. French TV has a different format than any other country except Russia, so the lap top was the best bet to show close-up of the eclipse, or so I thought. By the time the cameras were mounted, we had first contact and a pretty good view of the sun through very thin high cloud layer. I could not get an image from the cameras to the lap top. As the eclipse progressed I struggled to change cables, formats, snappy controls all with no effect. The images from my cameras would not show on French TV and now they would not show on the lap top either.

There seemed to be two or three layers of clouds, a thin cirrus layer that was quite high, a lower level of dense cumulus clouds and a low level of smaller opaque cumulus clouds. All three levels seemed to be traveling slightly different directions.

For the next hour the sun was in and out of view. Sometimes we could see the eclipse progress through the high thin layer of clouds. At about 20 minutes before totality, it was getting darker and a black cloud was moving directly toward the sun. Twelve minutes before totality it got much darker because the cloud had occluded the sun. It was too late to do much but pray. We could see the shadow of the eclipse coming our way. The distant overcast was very dark and moving in our direction. Our cloud was moving but very slowly.

With a minute to go, the sun came out from behind the cloud. There was still a thin high translucent layer of clouds. Baily's beads were spectacular probably because we were on the edge of totality. Traffic had prevented us from getting more than about 10 K into the zone of totality.

First there was a thin crescent of light, than 2 beads, now 4 beads and finally one bright bead of the diamond ring and next totality. The corona was not a distinct as the last eclipse. It was only visible for about half of a sun radius. I think the high thin clouds obscured the dim regions of the corona. However, there were many prominences Including one that was probably close to 30,000 miles from the surface of the sun. They showed clearly on the screen of my camera. I took a few seconds to just look and enjoy and then it was over. The video shows we had totality for about 70 seconds. However, we were among the lucky. The sky was about 95 percent overcast. We had been fortunate to end up under one of the few holes. We left the school parking lot and headed to the little town of Epernay to visit the champagne cellars and to do a little tasting of the fruit of the vine. What a good day it turned out to be!

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