The 2002 Australian Total Solar Eclipse
As Seen by Fred BruenjesDedicated to Wilhelm Bruenjes: August 23, 1922 - December 1, 2002
My father Horst and I travelled to Australia to view a total solar eclipse on December 4th, 2002. After the amazing success of the Africa eclipse in 2001, I had to try and get into the Moon's shadow again.
What is a total solar eclipse? Well, through an amazing coincidence in geometry, every few years the Moon blocks out the Sun creating a solar eclipse. The Sun is 400 times the size of the Moon, and 400 times as distant, so they appear to be the same size when viewed from Earth. When the orbit of the Moon takes it between the Sun and the Earth, the shadow of the Moon is cast upon the Earth. If the Moon is close enough to the Earth, someone located near the middle of that shadow will see the Moon exactly block out the Sun in a spectacular show. This is a "Total Solar Eclipse", arguably the most spectacular show in astronomy.
Total Solar Eclipses (TSEs) happen every few years, in strips laid across seemingly random parts of the globe. (Click here for a map of TSEs during 1996-2020, courtesy Fred Espenak of NASA). This time Australia or Africa was the place to be. The map below shows the maximum eclipse experienced at locations across all of Australia and Africa, and is a mosaic made up of actual images of the 2001 total solar eclipse.
Note: this preliminary map is for entertainment purposes only. It has not been checked for accuracy!
I was a member of the Astronomical Tours group, a group of 13. We chose to observe the eclipse along the Stuart Highway in South Australia. We started the day in Glendambo (population 30), and then headed over to Woomera to see the rocket museum there. Woomera used to be a top secret town where rockets were tested. We saw a lot of eclipse chasers in town there, on their way to the centerline.
In the early afternoon, we headed back out to the centerline to set up. We met up with Ray Brooks, who had skipped the Woomera jaunt in order to pick the best possible site. The Australian government had designated a large area for eclipse viewing, but it was in a very windy location, and we didn't want to be near crowds that would kick up dust onto our equipment. This designated area was at the intersection of the Stuart Highway and the limb-corrected line of maximum duration.
Looking northeast. The white dots on the horizon at far right are in the designated viewing area.
Here's a rundown of the equipment I had going:
The D60 and Rebel were controlled by my laptop, using software I hastily wrote and a relay box I designed. Early on I realized that I could either watch the eclipse visually, or take pictures of it manually, but not do both because the eclipse was so short. This automation setup allowed me to get specific exposures at specific times with no manual intervention, letting me get both pictures and visual observing in! Sorry, but I will not be releasing my software to anyone, it's too unrefined.
[Update: After several generations of development, this software is now known as Eclipse Orchestrator and is in use by eclipse chasers world wide! Surprisingly, the main screen design has withstood the test of time.]
First contact is the time when the Moon begins to cover up the Sun, ever so slightly. The Moon then moved further across the Sun, obscuring more and blocking out sunspots.
In no time at all, it was second contact, when the Moon begins to completely cover the Sun. In all of the excitement I almost forgot to remove the filters from my cameras, finishing the task only five seconds before totality! Below is a crude animation of second and third contacts, showing the impressive Baily's Beads that we saw. You can also see the wind blowing the telescope around. (Note: mideclipse has been cut out, and this view is rotated 90 degrees clockwise compared to the other images which have North up.)
Click here for a better quality MP3 audio recording of totality (678kB, 58 seconds). You can hear me call out "Diamond Ring!"
We saw the Moon's shadow coming in just before second contact, slightly to the left of the Sun. The fisheye view below was taken a few seconds after second contact and shows the shadow near the bottom (look for the darkened sky just above the horizon; the white dot is the Sun). That's me with the binoculars in the upper right. A fisheye distorts the image, curving perspective to fit the whole sky in. Not a cloud in the sky...
Below, my D60 camera just barely managed to capture a rare sight: the Moon's surface, illuminated by Earthshine. The view during the eclipse is at left, with a view of a typical full moon at right (with the same orientation and scale) so you can compare features.
For this eclipse and location, the Moon was only slightly bigger than the Sun, giving us a short totality (about 28.2 seconds). This seems short but I think it made the eclipse better: we got an outstanding view of Baily's Beads at 2nd and 3rd contacts, and we could see the prominences very well through the whole eclipse. (In a longer eclipse prominences and beads aren't visible for as long on centerline). Total eclipses that are only a few seconds in duration are definitely worth seeing.
After third contact, we swapped our impressions, realized the mistakes we had made (bumping focus, leaving a cap on a binocular, forgetting to change film), and looked over the pictures I had just taken (aren't digital cameras wonderful!) We then kept watching the Sun as it set, with the Moon slowly pulling away...
We didn't see any green flash visually at sunset. Goodbye, Saros 142, see you in South America in 2020!
We also visited the Great Barrier Reef, and various sights around Adelaide. Click here for some first look photos. The full report will take several more weeks to assemble.
Solar eclipses I have seen:
Total time in totality: 4 minutes 2 seconds.
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All text and images are © 2002 Manfred Bruenjes - All Rights Reserved. Framing and image inlining is strictly prohibited. Email for permission before using an image or text.