Chris Stewart's "Total Solar Eclipse 2001" Page


Hello all,

Welcome... Herewith a little "photo album" of my jaunt to Lusaka in Zambia, to see the Total Solar Eclipse on 21 June 2001. A group of us hired a couple of planes, roared off to Lusaka, watched the eclipse from the airport, and came straight back the same day. Our trip was organised by Brian Fraser of the Johannesburg Centre of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. Our group comprised individuals - both professional and amateur - from all over South Africa, as well as Germany, Switzerland, the UK, the USA and Australia.

The first set of images depicts the sequence of celestial events from the time the leading edge of the Moon just touches the Solar disc, through the initial partial phase and the period of totality, into the final partial phases, up until the point that I had to pack up my equipment to catch the plane home. The second set represents a little travelogue of "ambiance" shots, running in parallel (time-wise) with the first set. The photos have been deliberately kept reasonably small, at the expense of definition, for acceptable download times. However, you can click on any of them to see a full-size version.

The experience of witnessing a total solar eclipse transforms one; if you can possibly manage it, you will become an "eclipse chaser", selling your soul just to go and stand in the shadow of the Moon. One of our party joined us from Switzerland, for his 22nd full- or annular eclipse. Don't knock it till you've tried it! Nothing I can say or show you will come close revealing the beauty and grandeur of the spectacle, but hopefully if you haven't experienced it for yourself, you can at least get a vicarious taste. And if you have, perhaps this will help you to relive it again.

Chris Stewart

All text and images Copyright (c) Chris Stewart, June 2001


Click on thumbnail
for full-sized image

or here
for small
The eclipse itself

"First Contact" - the leading edge of the Moon is just touching the edge of the Sun.

The first nibble appears…

… and the bite gets progressively bigger …

For these shots I used 1/125 second and 1000 mm at  f/10 on Fuji ASA100 print film. You need a serious (specialist) objective filter to prevent burning out your camera, let alone destroying your eye.

Several nice sunspot groups can be seen …

Each sunspot is big enough to swallow the Earth without a burp …

Sunspots are fiercely bright, but look dark because they are "cooler" (i.e. less hot) than their surroundings, and thus emit less light…

The "limb darkening effect" can also be seen …

Photons mostly radiate out of the Sun perpendicular to its surface, so the edge as we see it appears darker than the centre of the Sun.

The munching continues...

 Gradually the Moon covers the sun...

Finally all that remains is a faint sliver of the Sun's disc, looking like a delicate cut with a surgeon's knife in the fabric of space.

Suddenly the sun is all gone, except for the tiniest jewel-like sparkle  peeking out through a valley between mountains or craters on the Moon's edge. Even that is intensely bright, requiring an exposure of 1/2000 sec at f/10 on ASA100 film. This is known as the "diamond ring". To the eye, it is truly breathtaking.

Prominences - eruptions of hot solar matter bursting out of the Sun's edge - can be seen, shining a delicate red-pink in the Hydrogen-Alpha wavelengths. The matter arches in loops and filaments, influenced by strong magnetic fields. A hint of the chromosphere is redly visible.

The corona blazes forth in the darkness, falling rapidly in intensity as it gets farther from the Sun's disk. To the eye, incredibly beautiful tendrils of ethereal luminosity stream out,  to as much as 10 degrees from the disc, with detail beyond the ability of film to capture. Here, I exposed for the inner corona.

A longer exposure (of 2 seconds, in this case) yields detail on film leading farther out. A still longer exposure would show detail even farther out. The inner area is then unavoidably overexposed. Two seconds is about the limit for a 1000 mm focal length lens, to avoid the rotation of the Earth from blurring the image. A good solid mounting is mandatory.

All too suddenly, it is over - the Sun finds another valley on the other side of the Moon, creating a second diamond ring. This one is a mere 3 minutes and 13 seconds from the first.

Now you must act quickly. The slightest hesitation can cause irreparable damage to your eye and even your equipment. That filter must be replaced immediately, a task made difficult by the excitement of the awesome event.

Finally, the second partial phase plays out in a mirror image of the first …

Gradually the sunspots that were covered up reappear …

We are left with the same technical and aesthetic appreciation of the partial phases as before…

However, having experienced totality truly spoils one for anything less.

Regretfully, we start packing up in order to catch the plane, saying good-bye…

… with perhaps half an hour to go to "final contact".

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for full-sized image

or here
for small
The ambiance

We flew directly from Johannesburg to Lusaka, and observed from a grass field just outside the airport terminal building…alongside about a thousand other people from all around the world.

You might be about to stand in the shadow of the Moon, but it's still time for suntan lotion, hats and mosquito repellent. At this altitude and latitude, the sun is harsh and there remains a real threat of Malaria (even in winter).

This is the kind of equipment you need to get pictures like the ones I managed. I used a Meade 4-inch (100 mm) aperture Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope on a manually driven equatorial mounting (less to go wrong), coupled to a Minolta 7000 35 mm SLR camera with a right-angle viewfinder and an electronic shutter release. The all-important filter is secured with two clamping screws.

During totality, it gets dark as night. The corona is so beautiful that even those with fancier equipment than mine (and thus obviously on a photographic mission) took time out merely to gawk, losing all track of time. I needed the flash for this picture.

The horison, all 360 degrees of it, looks like sunset. In the sky, bright stars and planets appear. The corona is visible for 10 degrees, bright at the edge of the moon and dropping off into a ghostly vapor further away. To pick up the twilight, Jupiter and the outer corona, this was a longish exposure, which is the reason for the pretty lens flare below the sun.

Just before and just after totality, the sun is reduced to a narrow sliver that approximates a slit source of light. Shadows become sharp and the sky takes on a steely blue otherworldly light. White surfaces sometimes show "shadow bands" racing along - these are diffraction bands caused by the sunlight interfering at the edge of the moon. For this, you need an airless body like the Moon - an atmosphere would just smudge things, which is why the shadow of the earth during why Lunar eclipses looks so different.

This is our plane, a Fokker F28 medium haul twin-engined jet, seating 75. Although there were ground crew to help, those few of us who had bulky equipment loaded the hold ourselves. It was virtually empty. We had almost unlimited baggage allowance, as most people only took a small bag of belongings, if anything.

On the plane home, we caught a glimpse of the sun setting over Lake Kariba. This was the second solar eclipse of the day, the "big one" we experience every 24 hours, as the Earth passes between the observer and the Sun.

Click on image to go to site

  Associated information
The home page of the Johannesburg Centre of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa
The "unofficial" ASSA Johannesburg Centre web site, maintained by Evan Dembskey. You can see a bit more of my stuff there.
The Johannesburg Planetarium  and the Johannesburg Centre of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa have a close association.
The reference site for eclipse chasers.
Maintained by Fred Espenak of NASA.
SDAC NASA's Solar Data Acquisition Center
The people who created the optics used to obtain this site's images.
Minolta The people who created my camera, and who incidentally also build rather nice planetarium projectors.