Total solar eclipse 2002 December 4

in South Australia

My eclipse report

If you have come directly to this page from another website; you can find my other eclipse information here. More photos will be added to this page later, when time permits.

I observed this eclipse from a private viewing site 10km southeast of the peak of Termination Hill. This ridge, between Lyndhurst and Lake Torrens, is the most northwesterly outlier of the Flinders Ranges; and was also the highest point in Australia (464 metres) to experience totality. Our tour group of about 60 people was positioned in flat open terrain about 900 metres south of centreline. We reached this site via pastoralist's tracks from Lyndhurst, and apart from driving over a lot of bulldust (and getting our bus bogged, briefly, in a dust-concealed mudhole), the bus and accompanying 4WDs arrived without incident about 80 minutes before first contact.

Conditions on December 4 were unseasonably cool; with a blustery southwesterly wind keeping temperatures down in the mid-20's instead of the more typical 35-45 C. As I commented to many people, the weather was more typical of winter for this region, but fortunately without the clouds! The strong wind also raised a lot of dust and carried it for great distances; especially when the ground was disturbed by footfalls or traffic. To the east we could see huge plumes of dust corresponding to each of the places where crowds had gathered: Lyndhurst and its music festival, the Ochre Cliffs, centreline on the Marree road, and the public viewing area to its north. 15,000 pairs of feet and thousands of vehicle wheels really stir up drought-afflicted ground!

We also knew that totality was going to occur at only 4.6 degrees altitude in the west-southwest - ie: about 7 solar diameters above the tree-covered sand dune to our west. Therefore the best observing strategy was to spread out in a long line across the direction of wind... There was a small problem in establishing the exact direction to totality for telephoto cameras. Large concentrations of iron-rich regolith and magnetic stones affected compasses here, and eventually I guesstimated the bearing from sun sightings.

The few mm of rain the week before had done little to revive the land from nearly two years of drought; but it had produced another mudhole nearby. The children on the tour were soon passing the time by practicing cratering experiments in the mud with whatever rocks they could find ;-) The overseas tourists marvelled at the aridity of the landscape, its intense red and orange hues, and the changing light and shadow on Termination Hill as the sun sank lower in the sky.

I set up a projection of the sun through my 7x50 monocular onto the side of the bus, and with this aid we managed to see a few small sunspots. The sun's rather bland face suggested that we would not see a huge corona at totality. My solar projection rig was soon commandeered and I didn't need to worry about it again until it was time to pack up. I spent the remaining moments before First Contact making sure everyone had their eclipse shades on hand, and that their cameras were also filtered.

I had been calling out a countdown to First Contact every few minutes since our arrival. First Contact is always difficult to detect; but within a few seconds of my predicted time of 18:43:08 a small circular bite could be seen creeping onto the edge of the projected solar image. The eclipse had begun!

Within a few minutes the bite was also evident through eclipse shades; and the cameras and videocams were running. At about 20 minutes after First Contact the landscape around us was beginning to dim - probably from the sun's low altitude as well as the eclipse - and I reminded people to watch for the upcoming changes of lighting and shadow before totality. Many of them hadn't discerned the drop in light yet; because their pupils had dilated without their noticing, but soon everyone was seeing the land and sky grow darker. And the excitement was increasing; because it was now obvious that the centres of the solar and lunar discs were going to meet...

There must have been some dust high above Lake Torrens, because the sun was growing distinctly less blue through my camera's Baader filter as the eclipse increased. With only about 10 minutes to go to totality, the landscape looked almost Martian in the fading orange light, and the blustery wind was beginning to slow (at last!). Termination Hill had assumed a dull purplish-black hue, incredibly wrinkled by shadows from the swiftly shrinking crescent of sun.

I remembered the natural pinhole images I had seen under vegetation at many previous eclipses; but in this barren landscape there was only the scattered saltbushes to use. And all I had for projection was a PostPak envelope...but I got this picture.natural pinhole projections through saltbush

About five minutes before totality, Mercury finally appeared above the sun, and the cool wind which had been blasting us all day suddenly died. Even the land seemed to be holding its breath for the main event! The only noise was the sound of cameras, and the chirping of a couple of cicidas. The air temperature had fallen to about 15 degrees C, so I knew the shadow was going to be refracted further down-track (and broadened) more than I had calculated. I had, reasonably, assumed a 40 degree summer's day dropping to 30 degrees at totality. But with the moon's shadow predicted to pass over us at about 48,000 km/h ground speed - at least ten times faster than any of my 3 previous totals - any time difference from the changed refraction would be slight. And with such great speed and low angle I was not expecting to see its approach. Even as the sun shrank down to a slender crescent, and then a tiara of golden light, the moon's shadow still couldn't be seen. I reminded everyone to get ready to remove their camera filters and eclipse shades.

Then as the arc broke apart into a multitude of sparkling tiny points, my perception of time suddenly altered. I entered the paradox of seeing events pass in an instant, while they simultaneously paraded by in a magical slow motion, just like my previous eclipses. I saw a great triangle of darkness stab upwards from the western horizon to encompass the suddenly blackened sun, and the corona blinked into full view. Totality had arrived; almost one second earlier than my predicted time for this location of 19:41:12, and the landscape around us had fallen into a veiled twilight.

The upper vertex of that incredible triangle instantly opened upwards and overhead into an immense hourglass of blue-black darkness. As it did so, the last stellar points of sunlight above the moon vanished in flashes of blue - I had never seen that at an eclipse before! - to be replaced by tiny pink festoons of solar prominences all around the black disc of the moon. The near-perfect match of solar and lunar disc sizes meant that we were seeing the entire corona practically all the way down to the sun's surface. The dust in the air was having a noticeable effect on the corona colours. Its inner portions were a lovely citrine yellow, formed into four unequal lobes, fading outwards through yellow and tan ochres to pale browns and then into the blue-black sky. Numerous radial wisps, streamers and arcs could be seen by eye; some stretching out to 1.5-2 solar diameters. The right (northern) side of the corona seemed to have intricate whorls and loops in it; rather like looking at the Tarantula Nebula.

The great hourglass of darkness overhead tucked in its western feet within seconds; becoming a broad band from horizon to horizon. It was only then that I remembered my camera. This photo was taken with a 200mm f/4.5 lens, 2 seconds manual exposure on Kodak ISO 400 film. It has been scanned and contrast adjusted to resemble the naked eye view of the sky, but the corona is rather overexposed...and yes the shadow edges moved noticeably during the exposure! Treetops can be seen at the bottom of this picture.totality

The sky on the northern and southern horizons looked almost normal late-afternoon sky colour. This merged into a multicoloured band - dull white, then yellow-oranges, then dull reds and browns - about 10 degrees wide, flanking the northern and southern rims of the moon's shadow. At mid-eclipse these rims were about 40 degrees either side of zenith. Termination Hill was visible only as a craggy black silohuette against the northern sky. Although Mercury remained visible above the sun, I saw no stars (including Antares) during totality. Probably swamped by the dust and the light leaking in from the north and south skies.

Then the western horizon suddenly assumed a dull red-brown colour. The end of the shadow was swiftly approaching us; and 26 seconds after it began, totality ended with a massive, lingering Diamond Ring - the best one I have seen.3rd contact diamond ring

After calling out another reminder to replace camera filters and eclipse shades, I remembered to turn eastwards to watch the receding lunar shadow. A vast slice of dull grey-black darkness - the outline of the umbra itself - could briefly be seen projected onto the dust plumes to our east; as it climbed swiftly back into space. As it passed beyond the tops of these plumes it abruptly shrank and faded as it was re-projected far to our northeast; and within a few seconds it was entirely gone from view. My perception of time returned to normal. I put the Baader filter back onto my own camera, checked that my boys had their shades back on, put on my own shades again, and turned to the sun to see that a yellow-orange arc of sunlight had already returned. Along with the wind...and the excited cheers and happy noises of many former eclipse virgins.

Mercury vanished within minutes of totality's end, reappearing briefly after sunset before it too set. No shadow bands were seen before or after totality, although several of us were watching the side of our bus (and our white shade marquee) for their appearance. I think the strong wind had homogenised the air too well? The show ended with this sunset of the partially eclipsed, brass-coloured sun. This photo is a 1 second exposure of the sunset through Baader filter. There was some camera vibration because the wind had returned, although weaker than before. And as the upper cusp of sun vanished into the sands many people commented that it looked like a shark fin! sunset Dec 4

After packing all our equipment (and litter) back into the vehicles we returned to Lyndhurst for a barbecue dinner under clear starlit skies. Long before we reached the town we could see the headlights of hundreds of vehicles returning south.

My boys concluded that it was worth missing a few days of school to see a total solar eclipse. What a day!

Copyright © 2002   Fraser Farrell. All rights reserved.