Eclipse 2009 at Enewetak
Eclipse 2009 at Enewetak
New: The 2010 eclipse at Hao in French Polynesia.
On what has to be my most remarkable eclipse trip to date,
we saw the great total eclipse of July 22 2009 on the Enewetak Atoll
in the Marshall Islands.
Enewetak was the site of many nuclear bomb tests, including the first hydrogen bomb. Today
it has been cleaned up and is re-populated, but the presence of a long airstrip allowed us
to fly there and experience the eclipse on the centerline in the place with the best weather
forecast along the path. Totality was 5 minutes and 40 seconds, though we missed the first
30 seconds or so due to a stray cloud.
While it is super-solar-minimum right now (no sunspots) the corona was quite compact and
there were only two visible prominences, neither very apparent to the naked eye. (Compare with
there was lots of good structure and like all total eclipses it was a wonderful drama.
Almost as dramatic was the story of getting there, which you will find after the pictures.
I got far better pictures than I did during my 1999 eclipse
cruise and these are just the first shots from one camera. Track
Photography section of my blog for updates.
At 1/60th of a second, the mid-range corona is visible
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The "diamond ring" at 3rd contact as the photosphere of the sun re-emerges
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The very start of the diamond ring is surrounded by beads of chromosphere peaking through the mountains of the moon
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Chromosphere begins to emerge from the limb of the moon at 3rd contact. Note prominence in upper left. There were not many.
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Another shot of emerging chromosphere
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A first experiment at an HDR composite of 4 images. More to come
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A long duration shot shows the surface of the moon lit by earthshine. Not normally visible to the naked eye unless you take special steps.
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The inner corona with streamers
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The far outer corona was not very prominent this time
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In spite of the clouds, the camera captured the diamond ring of 2nd contact.
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More structure in the deeper corona at 1/8 second
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Sunrise at Majuro
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There are many military ruins on the beach
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A shot by K. of the sea with sunset all around, and the eclipsed sun and Venus well below it.
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Our viewing site as we prepare for totality
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Sunset over atoll
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Fabulous Marshall Islands clouds
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Vogon Constructor Fleet
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Majuro at sunset
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The airstrip at Enewetak. Not maintained for a few years but still works.
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End of airstrip, with beach on the lower left where we set up our equipment
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Plantation on Enewetak
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Long strands of atoll
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Two nuclear craters. One was filled with other waste from Bikini and covered over.
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Another nuclear crater has formed a lagoon
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Close up view of nuclear crater
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You see the big blue hole in the atoll? There used to be an island there. Mike, the first H-bomb, destroyed it.
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People come to the airport "terminal" to watch us land
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K. sets up first table at our viewing site
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I test camera and telescope with partial eclipse shot
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We go swimming in the lagoon after the eclipse
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The lovely K. emerges from the water
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Plantations and islands of the Enewetak atoll
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This shot shows me briefly experimenting with doing a panorama. (It's too dark to do a handheld so I aborted) with the eclipsed sun and Mercury above me.
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This was my 4th eclipse. They are addictive. A few years ago, I related how
wonderful they are to a friend who, thanks to a very successful dot-com IPO,
has access to a long-range business jet. Travel to an eclipse through such
a jet has many great advantages. You can get places that are otherwise not
accessible, you can change your plans at the last minute to seek a location
with clear skies, and if all else fails and there are no clear skies, you can
take off again and observe the eclipse from the air.
We ended up on Enewetak, the northwest most atoll in the Marshall Islands. The runway
there was first built by the Japanese in WWII and enhanced when the U.S. performed nuclear tests around
the atoll in the 40s and 50s. Of late, it has not been maintained, and aside
from an emergency landing by a Continental flight, it has not been used by jets.
It is long enough at 7600 feet, and it was some years ago an potential emergency landing strip for
the space shuttle.
Picking a site
During preparation, I had researched several locations to view the eclipse.
In spite of this being the longest eclipse of the 21st century, with lots of
landfall, prospects were poor. The land section began in India then moved
into China, passing over the heavily populated Yangtze valley and Shanghai.
After passing a few Japanese islands, including the former Iwo Jima, it would
hit only a few small islands in the Pacific.
China and India are easy to reach, but it's monsoon season, and the chances
of clear skies were poor on the entire path. Plus, even when the sky is
clear in places like Chongqing,
and Shanghai there
is usually thick smog.
I researched the various islands. Average cloudiness was high for all of them too.
Only a few Japanese islands were close enough to the centerline to get a long eclipse, but
access to them was highly restricted, especially Iwo Jima. (Many tours which
thought they had access eventually had to cancel.) I scoured through the others and found
that only Enewetak had a long enough airstrip for a long-range jet. The others
could be reached only by boat or shorter-range aircraft after flying to one of
the bigger airports just outside the eclipse path.
Initially, we made plans to just fly to China on commercial airlines. The advantages
of a private jet don't apply to China -- Shanghai is easy to get to, and the Chinese
don't tolerate random changes of flight plan or even a flight plan that just wants
to see the eclipse from the air.
In addition, flying over the ocean from
Shanghai would put the sun up 70 degrees or more in the sky, hard to see from a
The Weather Bodes
As the eclipse approached, many people worked on weather forecasts to help eclipse
chasers. The forecasts for China were poor, and got worse. With a few days to go,
it looked like nobody in China or Japan would have a good chance, the sort of chance worth
such a long trip. However, a hole in the clouds was forecast for Enewetak. What we
didn't know was whether it was safe to land. It was hard to get information -- and it
was by then the weekend there. Air Marshall Islands, a cash-strapped airline, flies a Dash-8
turboprop plane to Enewetak sometimes, but the Dash-8 can take-off in 2,600 feet and
does so much more slowly, designed as it is to handle rougher airstrips.
One report suggested that inhabitants had started camping on the airstrip, but that if
you did a low pass over it, they would realize it was a very good idea to clear off
of it to let you land.
We got more and more weather models and it was clear Enewetak was the only place with
a high probability. Sunday afternoon, the pilot was still very wary of the airport
and it seemed like we would not go. At the last minute new information came in
which increased the landing to "probably," and so,
on Sunday evening, it was decided to do it, departing Monday at
1pm. This followed a rush of packing, preparing equipment and picking up a rental
telescope. I had encouraged the plane owner to consider taking along Landon Noll,
an astronomer friend of mine who has built special equipment to search for possible
asteroids inside the orbit of Mercury -- such asteroids could only be seen during
an eclipse, if they exist. This added some genuine scientific merit to the mission.
Landon had to load together his gear in just 4 hours, but it was already mostly packed.
We flew to Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, which has a "real" airport.
There, we would be able to track more weather, charge batteries and talk to the pilots
from Air Marshall Islands. This is about a 10 hour flight from the bay area.
Majuro is also an atoll, of which I saw very little due to the last minute nature
of the trip. A report came back on the airstrip saying it was in decent shape, though
a bit soft (gravel) in places. The last 250' was not usable but we did not need that.
As a backup plan, we had checked into chartering the Dash-8. No surprise, it had already
been chartered by a Japanese eclipse tour, to fly to another, closer island named Jaluit.
Jaluit would get a modestly shorter eclipse and was a good choice for this group when they
planned things a year ago. However, the weather report said rain for Jaluit and clear
skies for Enewetak. We asked the tour group if they would like to consider Enewetak
and take us if we could not land there ourselves. While this would be an obvious "yes"
in my mind, they had not planned for this, and some of their passengers had to return to
Majuro quickly for their return to Japan. Sadly, their path was fixed, and I fear they
flew to a rainy island, but I hope they got a break in the clouds.
The Dash-8 has flown a crew of astronomers from Hawai`i and elsewhere to the island a
few days earlier, needing a stop to do it.
In Majuro I also did the very nerdy thing of downloading perl to my laptop so I
could write code to generate photographing scripts for the cameras.
Landing at Enewetak
We flew to Enewetak and did our first low pass to inspect the runway. There was nobody
on it (they had heard we were coming by satphone) and it looked decent. We did a tour
around the atoll to do another pass, then decided we were "go" to land. The skies were
clear. We put on shoulder belts just to be safe,
but got a smooth and perfect landing, then taxied to some concrete pads on the
end of the runway which would solidly hold the plane. Folks were out to watch us
land, but after landing we were met by one local leader and, it seemed, the whole police
force of the island, curious and willing to help. Women came out to give us leis and
some guys brought a cooler with
fresh chilled coconuts which they whacked open with machetes. Yum.
Locals from the island helped move our equipment in their trucks
and set up a tent and table for us.
It seems the police
may have kept the other locals timid as they did not visit us. I went out and handed
candy bars to some of the children who were off in the distance with their parents.
They were very shy and didn't know what to think, though they liked the candy.
It was off to set up the equipment. We had lots of nice DSLR cameras, and I had
bought software which would control them all to shoot timed photos while we watched
the eclipse. (As great as it is to photograph an eclipse, it should be watched.)
Due to the late planning, I had just bought the software a few days before and done
some basic tests. I planned to write the shooting scripts on the 10 hour flight but
of course there were other distractions of private air travel with friends. In addition,
the software is not very easy to use -- I don't expect a lot since the market for such
software is of course very small -- so I only got it to control two cameras and only
really had it working just a few minutes before the eclipse.
Indeed, it was somewhat like a movie moment, where the computer programmer is
given some task and completes it just moments before deadline. There is no
deadline like an eclipse. You can see it approaching in the sky, the moon and
sun sliding inexorably along one another, and it will happen whether you are ready
Things were also made worse as I got a bit overheated since I had to do all the
telescope setup out of the shade, and I was not very familiar with the rental scope.
This is always the way with eclipses though. I know (and the software boldly reminds you)
that you need to plan well in advance and do many test runs, but things never go as
In spite of our positive forecast, cloud density increased near the start of totality.
This is probably because as the sun gets blocked, the air cools and more water condenses.
Just as totality was about to start, a seemingly large cloud moved in front of the sun.
We missed 2nd contact, which is one of the best parts, and I cried out "no, no..." with
all our planning seemingly going to waste. But the cloud moved quickly and was gone in
30 seconds, and the rest of the eclipse was clear. We all cheered as the eclipsed
sun appeared and enjoyed the eclipse and the beautiful tropical setting with a 360
degree sunset. The cameras clicked away with minimal checking needed and got some
good photos. I managed to watch a fair bit of the eclipse with my eyes and binoculars
though I didn't get down to lie on the beach as planned.
We took a quick swim in the sea and had to pack right away. We had deliberately landed with
only a partial tank of fuel, to keep our weight low for takeoff in case the runway's usable
length was not sufficient. In order to meet flight
windows at airports, the pilots were insisting we take off again fairly quickly. I
was sad to not get a real chance to see Enewetak and meet more of the people. I also
was sad that we didn't get a chance to go meet the other eclipse teams that had reportedly come
to the island -- one on an expensive scuba yacht tour, and one astronomer group
who had chartered the Dash 8 some days before.
The eclipse, with all the visitors was no doubt one of the most memorable
days in the history of the island, though not comparing to when nuclear bombs
(Of course, when it was nuked -- 43 times -- the islanders were not
there. They had been evicted and were settled back on the island after a legal battle and cleanup
in the 70s.)
It's interesting to note that the first H-bomb, "Mike" actually vapourized one of
the islands of the atoll. There is just a lagoon crater there, no island!
watch a video of the explosion or read about Operation Ivy. (Lots of cool photos there.)
Private air travel is, as you might imagine, extremely pleasant compared to
commercial, just as your car is much better than the bus, and it's hard not
to feel a bit extravagant while doing it. However,
this sort of trip -- to an otherwise unreachable location with the ability to
change plans "on the fly," bringing along many heavy scientific instruments,
seems precisely what this sort of aircraft is best at -- a real trip-of-a-lifetime
Comments on this article can be left on the blog page.
Eclipse images with Brandon 680mm f/7.1 refractor and Eos 5D Mark II Camera, with clock drive.
Other images coming soon from Canon 600mm f/4 on 1Ds Mark III and Canon 300mm DO on 5D Mark II.
Daytime images from 5D Mark II with 28-115 f/4L and Powershot 870IS.