Eclipse Observation Site: What to expect...
"Our observing site is perfect! I'm so glad we flew ahead and found it. Otherwise, we could have been in trouble." Jen Winter, Owner
In advance of the February site investigation expedition, we studied the local circumstances of the eclipse in detail. Predictions warned us of a low altitude position of totality. As a solar disk is approximately one half of a degree in diameter, this will place the height of the Sun from the horizon in the neighborhood of 2 to 3 times that disk-height above a perfectly flat horizon. The visual effect should be very impressive, with the outer edges of the visible corona almost brushing the ground at the horizon. Usually, when the Sun is seen this low during totality, it is about to set. However, our position puts the disk moving right-to-left sideways across the sky, with totality occurring nearly due-south at its lowest point.
We can expect a small degree of flattening of the disk, but this shouldn't be discernable to the naked-eye. Also, refraction should affect the color of the disk (and corona) slightly, making it more golden. The parabola of the umbral shadow will be highly pronounced as we look south towards totality in the sky. It is yet to be determined if the degree of darkness could yield a view of aurora australis, though experts feel it will not.
These factors which make that eclipse interesting to observe make it frustrating logistically to plan for. As there are 3 stations in the vicinity of Novo, we would examine all three in the site inspection. The position of each base, and it's relationship to inland mountain ranges and elevation in that southern direction plays a key role in the flatness of the southern horizon. Ultimately, each of the three established stations proved to be problematic, causing us to seek an alternate location. Maitri and Novo science stations are on the barrier shore, at a mere 100meters above sea level. They are both surrounded by significant glaciers blocking southern horizon. The airstrip was much higher, but still showed incidental hills and ridges blocking southern view. A snowmobile ride to the North end of the airstrip revealed an arguably better view with a possibility for success.
We ultimately located a fantastic viewing location to the West of the Airstrip. A small camp will be erected for us in November with a heated building and electricity. It will have bathroom facilities and hot tea and coffee to help keep the chill off during the time we are there to observe. Transport will be by land and air with cargo moved by sleds, snowmobile and track vehicle, and people moved by the 2-10 passenger biplanes.
Here is the story of our adventuresome exploration to locate our observing site:
Dissatisfied with the existing options, I requested the help of a guide to navigate with us to higher ground to locate a viewing spot. I requested access to a hill or out-crop with southern exposure. I also requested that we visit that spot at a time when the sun would be the same altitude as during totality (even if in the West vs. the South).
I felt this request was simple.
Location: Hill with a flat southern horizon
We were in luck, as a famous Russian mountaineering expedition was in the camp, with the worlds most knowledgeable experts on the local terrain. While our guide would not speak any English, the directions were conveyed to him and he confidently pointed to a hill and we set-course directly to it. We took out in one of the two balloon-tire vehicles with a Mr. Aksenov Victor Fedorovich. I rode shotgun while my partners, Rob and Ilka enjoyed the back of the wagon. Aksenov signaled that the two were tipping the vehicle too much if they sat on the same side with a see-saw gesture. We grinned at the successful communication and repositioned happily. The car was quite warm and the inside of the winshield tried to steam over in ice crystals as we chugged along at a blazing 29km/hr. The tires were partially inflated with rubber-tire leggings that went flippity-flop on the ice as they turned. Aksenov crouched lower over the steering wheel in his big puffy coat, peering out at the horizon and sun. He looked very clean, tan and groomed for what I would have imagined a mountaineer to look after a two-week expedition. I desperately wished I could ask some questions, but realized it could be for the better to let him concentrate on the path (or lack thereof). We headed closer and closer to a large hill. I was wondering how we would get up and around it, growing in discomfort as we came closer to its base. Eventually, Aksenov stopped the vehicle completely and waved a 'welcome' arm at the hill we had arrived at. He had kindly escorted us to the northern base of the very hill we wished to see around. This wouldn't do. It blocked the ENTIRE southern sky.
Houston, we have a problem.
Obviously, we couldn't easily communicate to the kind man that this was all wrong. We were 20 minutes from base-camp and the nearest translator. "Give me my notebook" I announced. "Does anyone play Pictionary?" I asked. My first drawings went to waste with poor Aksenov shaking his head sadly. We then drew more pictures of the Sun and mountains, and maps of the camp and hills. Soon, he understood that we wanted to be atop the hills. To this he shook his head 'no' and threw a slicing hand gesture across the whole hilly range. He took my pen and drew little lines between the hills. "Cracks", he said in English. This was bad news. Skulls and crossbones mean the same thing in all languages. Each hill we pointed to received the same response. "Cracks". I wasn't ready to give up. I went back to the pictures and the little map. More scribbles and taps. I showed him our current altitude of 545 meters. I wrote 1200 m. He scratched it out. Then, like a bidding war, we haggled over how many meters he could find for us. At 800, he pointed to a spot on the map that had no hills to the south. A smile and thumbs-up were all it took for our procession to continue.
We were off again. I admit that doubt was creeping up in my toes about the entire expedition, but that wouldn't be for long. Aksenov knew exactly where he was going, on an intentional course over the white abyss to get there. He had no compass or GPS, but drove with the intensity of a direction he knew like the back of his hand. Soon, the hills moved away and the entire horizon opened-up beyond. "Stop!" I shouted! I guess this word means no more than 'whoopee' in Russian. He kept going. After a few more guestures, he got the point. "Everyone out!" I said and we fell from the wagon like children to the playground. The sun was creeping low and I was worried about the time we had left. My D-100 digital camera was synchronized with Universal Time just the day before, so it would embed a time into the photo details.
I am not trained in land-survey techniques and feared my elementary methods would not be precise enough. I had telephoned friends who wrote astronomy software in advance of this, and asked what the best way to locate True South. They advised me that I should just try to arrive the night before and use astronomical charts and drift-scan. I don't think this method could do much good with the Sun up. Regardless, we leveled the tripod on the ice and locked it down. I walked a course in the snow with the GPS to identify South and walked it back. I checked against the compass point and re-dialed its wheel to compensate for magnetic variation. With this, we all three double-checked and agreed on a tiny reference point on the horizon to name South.
I was pleased that this point we agreed was due South was the tip of a mirage. I centered my viewfinder on the distant, flat horizon towards the North and buckled down the camera height. With this, I felt we could make a level comparison from a known zero-horizon to our hopefull zero-south horizon. It was flat. It was so flat, it was difficult to frame edges on my panorama pictures, as the horizon was a wash of nothing, nothing and more nothing as far as the eye could see. Aksenov waited patiently in the warmth of the Balloon-tired "BigTrax" keeping it running. (for safety of course) I wondered what kind of things he was muttering about the crazy astronomers under his breath as I juggled my papers, gps and camera. Beyond the wagon, to the East, I noticed we were high enough to see the tail of our airplane peeking-up from beyond the hill in the distance.
I calculated that if I was able to photograph the sun at 8:24pm on February 8th, that it would be at the same altitude as totality on November 23rd. With my panorama study complete, we waited for the magical moment. Knowing that one cannot photograph the Sun without proper solar filter, we ought plan to use a white-light filter for the job. Unfortunately, that renders a perfect image of the Sun, but no detail of the horizon. So, operating on the thinking that sunset refraction should dim the disk enough to photograph it through neutral density filters, I lined the sun up using a proper solar filter, (so I could image without putting my eye to the viewfinder) removed it and replaced it with 2 levels of Neutral density filtration. In my backyard, this would dim the sun enough to shoot at 1/60 seconds at this altitude. Not here. The light meter read that f/22 1/4000 sec was overexposed. The refraction and diffusion of the disk in this atmosphere was minimal. Soon, we were stacking multi-filters; two of us holding our sunglasses in front of the lens to dim the image enough to get a good exposure. At 8:26, the sun was an ample distance above the western horizon... The site passed. If I had champagne, we would have toated our success; but that would have to wait for later. It was now time to shake a leg back to camp. I worried we could make it back before dark set in. The sun had just set afterall.... Turns out this was not an issue. The sky remained a light shade of blue and the camp lit in weird twilight the whole night.
Once home at base-camp, I dowloaded, checked, compared, overlayed and double-checked my images. As the hours of twilight wore on, more and more visitors turned-in to sleep. Soon, felt completley secure that Eclipse viewing at this location would be successful and started running out of tests and re-calculations to run. Our friend, Aksenov happened into the dining hall for a cup of coffee, and I tiptoed over to try and thank him. All I could muster was an offering of my Russian/English dictionary and shy and akward attempt to explain that I wanted him to have it with one of the only words I knew. "Spacibo."
by Jen Winter - Based on Site Inspection and logistical expedition of February 7-9, 2003
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