Under a darkened star

By CSIRO

15 November 2012

4 minute read

E clips

E clips anyone? Image: Flickr / Machado_

‘An eclipse adventure in Far North Queensland’, by Robert Hollow

I’ve just experienced a long-held desire to observe one of the most stunning events in astronomy, a total solar eclipse. Yesterday’s eclipse was only visible as a total eclipse in Far North Queensland, with most spectators lining the coast from Cairns to Port Douglas. Not for me the delights of the beach, though, as I was well inland, west of the divide on Maitland Downs cattle station.

What made the event even more special was that I was able to share it with a fantastic, keen bunch of school students from across the region taking part in “Under a Darkened Star” Student Astronomy Conference. Organised by the irrepressible David Platz, teacher and astronomy educator at Atherton State High School and supported by a cast of astronomers, amateur and professional from across Australia, the US and France, the four-day conference took us to the most likely spot along the centre line of the eclipse to have clear skies.

We arrived late Tuesday afternoon and within a short time had an impressive line of canopies erected for the students to sleep under whilst a dedicated team of parent volunteers had the barbecue underway. With dinner out the way, we spent a few hours exploring the dark night skies with a range of telescopes. It was lovely change to be observing without the need to rug up against the cold or battle mosquitoes.

Up before 5am for a final setup a check of our telescopes and cameras, a bright Venus greeted us in the pre-dawn sky. As the sky lightened the anticipation grew. The Sun would already be in the early stages of the eclipse as it rose above the ridgeline opposite our viewing site. At last it was visible! Silhouetting the trees the top left edge of the Sun appeared eclipsed by the Moon.

Eclipse over ridge

An eclipsed Sun rises over a ridge at Maitland Downs, Queensland.

As the Sun rose the Moon continued its trek across the face. Four sunspot groups added to the spectacle. The students were able to view the eclipse through a variety of telescopes and experimented photographing it with their cameras and smartphones held up to the eyepieces. A video camera connected to a projector allowed us to project a large image on a screen too.

With totality approaching at 6.38am we could feel the temperature drop, the lighting change and the birds stopped singing. Things started happening quickly. The students assembled in a group with instructions to remove their eclipse glasses and view the total eclipse on a whistle blast.

Totality

Totality.

There was a collective gasp on seeing the Sun’s corona and the total eclipse. A truly memorable moment. We had a fraction over two minutes of totality. Never enough, but we made the most of the time. Venus and stars came out and we could see red solar prominences through an unfiltered telescope.

I was able to get a few photos before having to replace the solar filter on my telescope and camera lens. Fortunately, my last photo captured the moment known as the “diamond ring”, a stunning effect.

'Wedding ring' totality

A wonderful ‘wedding ring’ at end of totality.

With another whistle blast the glasses went back on, leaving us another hour to follow the passage of the Moon across the Sun.

Through refractor telescope

Though a refractor telescope after totality.

By the time it ended it already felt like a much longer day, though in fact we were yet to have breakfast. Fortified with some bacon and eggs and a cup of tea the camp was soon packed up, telescopes disassembled and the students were all back on the buses. It was a sleepy but happy ride back to our base at Lake Tinaroo for the rest of the conference.

I’m no longer an eclipse novice but I think I may have caught the bug.

Robert Hollow would like to thank David Platz, Atherton State High School and the “Under the Darkened Star” Student Astronomy Conference for the opportunity to view the eclipse.