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Science and Religion in Awe of Historic Solar Eclipse

July 22, 2009

Citizens of India and China witnessed the longest total solar eclipse of the century on Wednesday.

Scientists as well as religious men and women crowded the cities in hopes of catching a glimpse of the eclipse, which lasted a total of six minutes and 39 seconds.

The eclipse first appeared in the skies over India, where many devoted Hindus had crowded the streets and the banks of the Ganges in a time of religious celebration for the eclipse.

“We have come here because our elders told us this is the best time to improve our afterlife,” Bhailal Sharma, one villager told Reuters.

Officials have reported that the massive religious draw to the region resulted in the death of one 80-year-old woman after she became suffocated and crushed by the crowds of people hoping to take a dip in the Ganges.

“Taking a dip in holy rivers before and after the eclipse salvages and protects us from disasters and calamities,” 86-year-old Sundar Shrestha told Reuters on Wednesday.

But some views from coastal cities were blocked by the clouds, as the eclipse passed over Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and over the crowded cities along China’s Yangtze River.

For scientists, the event served as an unprecedented opportunity to study the most-viewed and longest total eclipse in a century.

“We saw it! The clouds kept getting thinner, and we even had a pretty good-sized hole in the clouds for the five minutes of totality,” Expedition Leader Jay Pasachoff, Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams and chair of the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group on Solar Eclipses, wrote in an email from China.

Pasachoff was witnessing his 49th solar eclipse.

“Everyone saw all the coronal phenomena. The diamond rings were spectacular. Just before totality, the clouds were just the right thickness that allowed us to see partial phases without filters.”

“All our equipment seems to have worked, so now we still have an hour or so of partial eclipse to image, and then we will download photos and start looking at them. The oscillation experiment has a lot of data through two filters, and we will assess later whether comparison of the two channels allow us to account for the cloud cover,” he added.

Pasachoff’s team traveled to an observatory outside Hangzhou where they collected data to be compiled with previous information from eclipses to gain a better understanding of why the Sun’s corona, the outer halo of million-degree gas, shines hotter than the Sun itself.

The team uses a special rapid-readout electronic camera and single-color filters in order to focus in on the coronal gas.

In addition to Pasachoff’s team, an Indian air force AN-32 transporter carried a group of astrophysicists on a flight along with a Mirage-2000 fighter jet which took photos of the eclipse.

“This is indeed quite an important event for scientific experiments. Its long duration provides you an opportunity to make very complicated, complex experiments,” Harish Bhatt, dean at the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Astrophysics, told Reuters.

The next solar eclipse is expected to occur on July 11, 2010 in the South Pacific. However, scientists will not get another chance to observe a longer solar eclipse than Wednesday’s until June 13, 2132, according to NASA.

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Image Credit: NASA

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