Dec 12, 2011

An eclipse, when astronomy meets designer drugs

If you had clear skies and thought the total eclipse of the moon looked good early Sunday, then just wait until early morning in far north Queensland and parts of Arnhem Land on November 14 next year.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

If you had clear skies and thought the total eclipse of the moon looked good early Sunday in eastern Australia and late Saturday night in the western half of the country, then just wait until early morning in far north Queensland and parts of Arnhem Land on November 14 next year. That morning the sun will rise fully eclipsed at Tor Rock in Arnhem Land and will be a very early morning spectacle along the comparatively narrow swathe of Australia following a south easterly track, which will be traced by the moon’s shadow as it races away from the top end to cross Port Douglas and Cairns. Tor Rock, and the surrounding area, will probably be under siege by eclipse chasers, the spare-no-expense-solar-eclipse-aficionados who have been booking rooms, tent sites and travel arrangements for years in advance of this, as the pre-dawn twilight awaits the rare conjunction of a rising sun and the fall, like a great massive dark bird, of the lunar shadow. All being clear, the celestial butterfly, as the ancient astronomers called it, will spread its ghostly wings around the black oval disk of the moon, as it covers the sun and reveals the tenuous luminescence of the solar corona.  But only if you get clear skies and are well within the northern and southern boundaries of  the predicted shadow track, which is calculated with great accuracy but can be slightly affected by atmospheric distortion. The waterfront at Port Douglas and along the Cairns Esplanade will be swarming, although this is, given the time of year, a very risky solar eclipse in terms of likely seasonal tropical clouds and storms. It will be a standing-room-only eclipse at the key vantage points. In the Cairns-Port Douglas area, where the sun will have risen well clear of the horizon before totality occurs, the sun will be eclipsed for just over 60 seconds.  Out in the mid-southern Pacific, when the it occurs near noon local time,  costly chartered eclipse watching ocean-going yachts or cruise liners will get over four minutes in the eerie deep twilight of a high-sky total solar eclipse at the optimum locations. While there are very detailed eclipse path tables posted by NASA, a non-technical user friendly set of highly detailed maps can be found here, at the site maintained by Canadian astronomer and eclipse chaser Jay Anderson. This will be the third time solar eclipse totality has been observable in Australia since the October 23, 1976 event, which crossed Melbourne in broken cloudy skies, which gave clear viewing in some suburbs, and was seen by this observer above a rocky cove near Bega, where it ambushed a nearby party of intoxicated weekend fishermen who were almost speechless when we saw them after it finished.  (When the darkness came, the sea birds screeched and wheeled and a weird wind whipped up the wave tops as the air fell cold.) They obviously had no idea an eclipse was imminent until maybe the last few minutes in which everything starts to look "different". At the near sunset eclipse of December 4, 2002 at Lyndhurst,  north of Leigh Creek in South Australia, totality was incredibly brief, less than 20 seconds, during which the sky sunk through an amazing range of deep blue and violet hues, and the shadow of the moon like a black searchlight sprang up from the horizon. Shortly afterwards, the crescent sun touched the horizon, turned into two golden tusks of light as the moon slid away from the setting solar disc. There had been a rave party for the exceedingly well-heeled at Lyndhurst.  That night, on TV down the track at a roadhouse, there were images of a shirtless Nubian drummer, pausing dramatically and with perfect timing amid the hypnotic beat to bow to the horizon as the shadow arrived, and the celestial butterfly appeared and Teenybopper TV news panned across a dune side of beautiful people with expensive tastes in lollies bursting into tears.  Awesome. Astronomy meets designer drugs! The performers and promoters apparently follow eclipses wherever practicable. Will they turn up at Kakadu or Cairns? Who knows? Excluding a split-second eclipse that wouldn’t be safe to directly observe, which might just graze the coast near Exmouth on April 20, 2023, as it tracks by on its way to Indonesia, the next total eclipse after 2012 is on July 22, 2028, a  big one that will last more than five minutes near Broome, then sweep across the red centre and most of  the Sydney basin including the harbor before crossing the Tasman to a cosmic curtain lowering display at sun set near Dunedin. In the lifetimes of many readers, there is also a July 13, 2037, total solar eclipse that just touches greater Brisbane,  but blankets the Gold Coast, and on December 26, 2038,  another will cross central South Australia and Victoria well north of Melbourne, but bringing and afternoon Boxing Day show to Swan Hill, Echuca, Shepparton and Bright.

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2 thoughts on “An eclipse, when astronomy meets designer drugs

  1. wayne robinson

    If you’ve got the opportunity of seeing a total solar eclipse, grab it. It’s one of the most awe inspiring experiences you will ever have, even if it is so short. I saw one recently in Novosibirsk. I have the one in 2028 pencilled in my calendar (I’m giving the one in 2012 a miss owing to the weather conditions, although if they turn out to be perfect, I’ll probably shoot myself) to go along with the return of Comet Halley in 2060 ( I want to see it twice, I’ll only be 105…)

  2. Ben Sandilands


    You’ll be 106, and also celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first manned space flight by Yuri Gagarin back in 1961. And I’ll be the raucous 119 year old that clear August night when it makes what is calculated to be a rather bright but brief appearance in our skies.

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