Their numbers ebb and swell from one solar eclipse to the next, but they are always there, enduring any hardship or expense to spend a few hundred seconds standing under the moon’s shadow. The eclipse freaks last gathered in southern Australia in 1976. Before that it was the “eclipse of the century” (because it lasted seven minutes) seen from the Sahara and Kenya in June, 1973. With almost religious fervor they converge on whatever location the celestial geometry dictates to witness what can properly be described as the most spectacular nondestructive event in nature, a total eclipse ofthesun. This week, planeloads of addicts and first-timers are heading to Manitoba for the next cosmic extravaganza, on Feb. 26.
“This time, instead of having to travel halfway around the world, the eclipse will be right over us,” gloats veteran eclipse chaser Bill Peters, a producer at the Manitoba Planetarium. It was indeed a rare privilege, since any given spot on earth is treated to the phenomenon only once in 360 years, on average. There won’t be another total solar eclipse visible from populated areas of Canada before 2044.
It all sounds simple enough. The earth, moon and sun are in perfect alignment, with the moon in the middle casting its 100-mile-wide shadow on the earth. But for those under the shadow, the sight is awesome if the sky is clear. For about an hour the sun will seem to be nibbled away as the black disk of the moon gradually passes in front. When only a sliver of sun remains, the moon’s shadow looms on the horizon like an impossible storm on a cloudless day. Within moments the shadow immerses the watchers in blackness, the brighter stars and planets appear, and the dimming sun is replaced by a ghostly ring of pearly light—the sun’s atmosphere, the corona. Because totality is seen from within a near-circular shadow, the horizon in every direction is bathed in a twilight glow.
Monday’s eclipse will cast its giant shadow over some 250 million people in Canada, the U.S. and parts of Mexico, turning day into total night for two minutes, 49 seconds in southern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan—the ideal viewing locations. The total eclipse will begin around 10:43 a.m. local time in the two Prairie provinces. Time of maximum eclipse across Canada will range from 8:19 a.m. local time in Victoria to 1:35 p.m. in Halifax. For those non-Manitobans who have paid anywhere from $200 to $2,000 in travel and accommodation for the privilege of seeing it, the total eclipse will only be a disappointment if it is obscured by cloud. “There is a persistent rumor that someone who has been clouded out at 10 eclipses is coming here,” reports the planetarium’s Peters. “We hope he watches from Montana.”
Joining those in Manitoba is a small band of astronomers intent on making serious scientific observations. American expeditions from Williams College, Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin are joining teams from the Universities of Calgary and Victoria at sites around Brandon, Manitoba. They will concentrate on the solar corona, scrutinizing it with a battery of sophisticated infrared and microwave receivers. “The advent of solar observation from spacecraft has made scientific study at eclipses a declining activity,” says Brandon University astronomer Dr. John Rice, the Canadian co-ordinator of the eclipse. “There is nothing that can be learned at an eclipse that could not be seen better from space. But ground-level experiments are still much less expensive.”
Apart from a few other such serious approaches, though, the event will be one that is simply enjoyed. It is, of course, also a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the children in the total eclipse zone. Says a Winnipeg science teacher: “I expect a high truancy rate.”
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