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A “Ring of Fire Eclipse” Over Panama

Ernie Piini

... studded with pink prominences, some red chromosphere, a bright photosphere, and the sun's corona. The photo was taken, as annularity was ending, from the C-90 telescope with a Canon "Rebel" SLR digital camera with the solar filter removed, ESO=100, S=1/4000 second exposure. Photo courtesy of the author.


Friday, April 8, 2005: a day I will remember for years to come. Why? It enabled me to introduce my thirteen-year-old grandson, Christopher, to the wondrous world of the solar eclipse-in hopes that he may become an "eclipse chaser" like his grandfather. In addition, I felt honored to have as team leaders Claude Nicollier, Swiss Astronaut, and Paul Maley of NASA. Paul organized and conducted this successful trip which included a visit to the awesome Panama Canal.

The sky grew cloudy and dicey an hour before our departure from the luxurious Royal Decameron Hotel, about an hour and a half drive northwest of Panama City. In hopes of an unobscured annular eclipse, two bus loads of eclipse chasers waited anxiously for the final word from Paul and Claude as to which of two pre-selected sites-each accessible from the nearby Pan American Highway-we would choose. They kept vigil on the weather reports and at 3:00 p.m. made the decision to head for the Penonome airstrip, as it was raining at the other site.

We arrived at the airstrip only to find several hundred visitors already there. Some had set up their telescopes and cameras, while others sat and enjoyed the increasing ambiance. Our two busses rolled down the airstrip as Claude read the exact footage away from the centerline off his GPS. We settled for a spot approximately 300 feet to the south.

My GPS readings for this site were:
Latitude = 8 deg, 29.968 min. North;
Longitude = 80 deg, 21.648 min. West,
Elevation = 312 ft. above sea level.

It was quite windy as we formed a line perpendicular to the west, hoping for an unobstructed view of the eclipsing sun. First contact (3:56:18 p.m.) was imminent as we were setting up our equipment. I helped Chris set up his wooden, home-built, azimuth-elevation mount /tripod, and attached a Canon GL-1 camcorder with a Baader density 5 filter (reduces sunlight by 100,000 times). He began capturing eclipse images soon after.

I brought a lightweight Celestron C-90 telescope mounted with a Canon "Rebel" SLR digital camera. I placed a one-foot square shade in front of the camera to obscure the bright sunlight somewhat and make exposure settings easier to see, but the wind was flapping the shade and disturbing an otherwise normal exposure setting.

As the eclipsing of the sun progressed, it was about to be covered by a band of clouds. An announcement was made for those interested that bus #2 would move north a few miles to try and beat the cloud cover. I suggested to Chris to pick up his equipment and go with the "true eclipse chasers." This would better his chance of seeing the "ring of fire" now about 30 minutes away. I remained at the original site, and moved my equipment to the south side of bus #1 where I was protected by the wind.

Low and behold I could see the sun moving into a clear spot between clouds. I prepared to shoot the annular with my Baader Density -5 solar filter removed. Annularity was predicted to occur at 5:11:54 p.m. and last only a few seconds. Removing the filter was a recommendation from Dr. Jacques Guertin, a long-time friend and fellow eclipse chaser, from Newark, CA. With the right exposure, and a bit of luck, one might capture some rosy red prominences, the chromosphere, and even the corona. These are characteristics normally captured only during a total solar eclipse. I was pleased at what I got!

When more clouds moved in, there was not much else to do but pack up and have our group photo taken. This was my 25th eclipse adventure; I was very pleased with my results. I was more pleased to learn that Chris and all of the chasers on bus #2 saw it too! Chris' brother, Matthew, was not as lucky when I took him to Costa Rica in 2001. He saw only about a half hour's worth of the annular, as it was shrouded by clouds.

The temperature during the eclipse dropped from 92 degrees F to 80 degrees F. The strong winds eased somewhat near annularity. Red ants hid inside their nests around and during annularity, but later returned to their daily above ground activity.

This eclipse was classified as a rare "hybrid" event. It began just southwest of New Zealand as an annular, annulus or ring type-moon not large enough to fully cover the sun; then became a total over most of the Pacific Ocean-moon larger than the sun; then returned to an annular eclipse off the coast of Central America. Over Panama, a thin ring formed for about 6 to 7 seconds at annularity.

The Royal Decameron Hotel is located at Faraleon near the Pacific Ocean. The layout is huge, so we took minibus rides to the various restaurants. The food was varied and satisfying. Free drinks were available there as well as on the beach.

A few hundred feet south of the hotel grounds is the beach house of the former Panamanian dictator Manual Noriega. We tried to walk down the beach front to view the mansion but could not get there because of a high tide. Noriega now resides in a U.S. prison.

Mr. Nicollier treated us to a one-hour lecture with color slides on the status of the Hubbell telescope. The former astronaut hails from Lausanne, Switzerland and has received many awards for his services in the field of astronomy, Swiss aviation, and astronautics. He is a veteran of four U.S. space flights, which include the STS-46 Atlantis in 1992, STS-61 Endeavor in 1993 to service and repair the Hubbell telescope, STS-75 Columbia in 1996, and STS-103 Discovery in 1999. On one of his assigned space walks he repaired the Hubbell Telescope. He commented on how beautiful it was to see the entire continent of Australia far below, but had to devote his time instead to the 8-hour repair assignment. His wife Susan accompanied him on this eclipse trip.

I was highly impressed at the way NASA's Paul Maley conducted this 70-person expedition. Before the trip he sent each of us eight lengthy eclipse notes containing information about Panama, the luxurious Royal Decameron Hotel, the do's and don'ts on eclipse day, and other useful facts. He is a veteran of over 30 successful total and annular eclipses, cautiously researching eclipse sites, and tracking pre-eclipse weather forecasts.

Thunderstorms threatened our visit to the amazing Panama Canal. Seeing large container ships move from the man-made Lake Miraflores, lowered through the Miraflores locks, and then move on to the outlet to the Pacific Ocean was most exciting and fascinating. Ships moving the other way are raised as they pass through the Miraflores locks.


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