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The Solar Corona of 1998 Feb 26
The Solar Corona of 1998 Feb 26
The diamond ring effect at 2nd contact and solar corona.
This photo is a composite from 20 separate images shot with two telescopes.
They have been processed and combined in Adobe Photoshop
to closely resemble the naked eye appearance of the solar corona.
The image was featured in Sky & Telescope's Gallery section (June 1998, page 126).
(Click for more information)

Report on the Total Solar Eclipse of 1998 Feb 26

by Fred Espenak (Oranjestad, ARUBA)

In February 1998, the Astronomical League hosted a Caribbean eclipse cruise to observe the total eclipse of the Sun. The trip was organized by Ken Willcox with the indispensable help of Gary Spears (Spears Travel). Carnival's 71,000 ton MS Fascination brought our group of nearly five hundred people to six ports of call through the Caribbean during the week leading up to the eclipse. I served as technical consultant and one of several guest lecturers during the trip.

One of the most unique features of this eclipse cruise was that our expeditioners had a two choices for eclipse viewing. On eclipse morning, the MS Fascination docked briefly in Oranjestad, Aruba to disembark passengers who wanted to observe and photograph the event from dry land. The ship then departed heading south to the center line carrying those who wished to take advantage of a slightly longer totality and the improved odds the ship's mobility afforded in maneuvering around any local weather disturbances.

Hotel Manager Gwen Kruebbe, Fred Espenak
and Captain Salvatore Rassello on the bridge
of MS Fascination.
Photo 1998 by Pat Totten
Espenak & Captain Rassello

Two days before the eclipse, Ken Willcox, Pat Totten and I met with Fascination's Captain Salvatore Rassello to discuss the ship's course on eclipse morning. The Captain was rightly concerned about the optimum positioning of the ship for maximum totality. The winds were expected to be out of the east. It was decided that Captain Rassello would point the bow of the ship eastward into the wind. This not only afforded one of the most stable orientations of the ship at sea and thereby minimizing motion on deck, but it also offered people on the large rear deck an unobstructed view of the southwestern horizon in the hopes of seeing the Moon's approaching shadow in the minutes before totality. The Captain chose the 18:12 GMT center line position and I calculated contact times for those coordinates. Barring any unforeseen problems with the weather, the MS Fascination would rendezvous with the Moon's shadow at 12 degrees 17.5 minutes North and 69 degrees 43.0 minutes West.

The day before the eclipse, we were docked in Caracas, Venezuela. Ken Willcox and Gary Spears visited Carnival's Caracas office in order to get Internet access to GOES weather satellite images. These would be crucial to us in making observing site decisions and with targeting the Fascination toward clear skies on eclipse day. Of course, hooking up to the Internet is not always a simple task; especially in a foreign country! Furthermore, nobody at Carnival's Caracas office spoke English and the boys don't speak Spanish! Nevertheless, Ken and Gary persevered. After several hours of hard work they were successful. The GOES images showed that there were no major storms in the area and that Aruba's prospects for clear skies on eclipse day remained promising!

We were hoping to arrive in Aruba early the next morning so that we could disembark and have as much time as possible to set up at our reserved observing site on the grounds of the Sonesta Conference Center in Oranjestad. There were many large cruise ships in the vicinity, making it necessary to wait in a queue when reaching each new port. The Dawn Princess always seemed to beat us to the next port. But crafty Captain Rassello anticipated this for the all important eclipse day. He arranged to have the Fascination docked in Caracas with the bow pointed seaward instead of the more usual bow-to-land orientation. This permitted us to 'fire out of the starting blocks' and get a running start on the Dawn Princess. The strategy worked because we arrived in Aruba an hour early on eclipse day and docked almost immediately. Gary, Ken, Vic Winter and I disembarked shortly after 7 AM and taxied our equipment to the observing site while Gary and assistant Crystal Ralph went to pick up our rented vans to transport the rest of our group's equipment.

MS Fascination departs Aruba for the
eclipse central line as
Fred Espenak sets up his telescopes.
Photo 1998 by Pat Totten
Espenak in Aruba

The Sun rose with just a few clouds along the eastern horizon as we eagerly unpacked our gear. The Sonesta Conference Center had recently constructed a large grassy field adjacent to it which was bordered by a sea wall and an unobstructed view to the southwest. To complete the picture, a row of young palm trees lined the perimeter walkway of this idyllic observing site.

Within an hour, we were joined by about a hundred others from our group. Twenty more opted for viewing the eclipse from DePalma Island while the majority of the expedition remained onboard the Fascination. Our observing site had an almost carnival like atmosphere as everyone excitedly erected tripods, telescopes and video cameras.

At 9 AM, the Sun was shining brightly and we all waved an enthusiastic farewell to the Fascination as it gracefully sailed past us and headed south to the center line. Since our site is located within Oranjestad, early morning shoppers soon appeared garbed in a variety of eclipse tee-shirts, hats, shades and carrying a host of other eclipse related paraphernalia. Of particular note were the first day postal covers complete with two stamps of the eclipse. My own favorite was the Amstel commemorative beer can, complete with a ying/yang Sun/Moon eclipse logo.

As the morning wore on, clouds began moving in from the south. Our concern escalated as blue sky was rapidly replaced by thick cumulus. By 11:30 AM, the sky was completely overcast. To add insult to injury, we even experienced a brief sprinkle of rain which elicited an frantic dash to cover telescopes and cameras with any plastic bags and jackets available. Ironically, this was reportedly the first precipitation Aruba had experienced in six months!

But as first contact approached (~12:38 PM), a patch of blue sky appeared to the southeast and rapidly grew. The group cheered as the Sun began popping out of the clouds. Enough of the cumulus had dissipated to provide an unhampered view of first contact, thereby offering a reassuring confirmation of the impending event we had come so far and waited so long to see! Unfortunately, our enthusiasm was short-lived as the clouds once more began to thicken.

Vic Winter surveys
bleak gray skies in Aruba.
1998 by F. Espenak
Vic Winter & Sky

By 1:15 PM, the sky was again gray with nary a patch of blue. With less than an hour until totality, spirits sank to a new low as prospects of seeing the corona seemed to rapidly dwindling away. This was my 14th total eclipse, and I've been clouded out before. It's not an attractive scenario and I had to force myself to continue with my equipment preparation and not just surrender to defeat.

Bob and Wendy Shambora stood nearby and looked helplessly at the thick clouds. Bob had already see totality twice but his wife had yet to experience it. Wendy's first attempt was thwarted by clouds last year when the couple traveled with me to Mongolia. Bob sternly warned his wife that if we were clouded out again, he would NOT be bringing her to Turkey with him for next year's eclipse! Yikes!

Pat Totten was also here with son Russell. The pair were clouded out in Hawaii in 1991 and Pat wondered if her son would ever witness totality. After three tries spanning 25 years, Pat's first success had only come two years ago in India. And her bittersweet success was marred by post eclipse depression since totality had only lasted 41 seconds. Now she began to think it might be another 25 years before she saw her next total eclipse!

The first sign of renewed hope occurred around 1:40 PM as another patch of blue sky appeared in the southeast. With second contact predicted at 2:09:44 PM, the Sun began to emerge from the clouds for brief instants before retreating once again. It was quite a frustrating challenge to attempt to align and focus four 35mm cameras plus two video camcorders when the Sun makes such infrequent and brief appearances. Nevertheless, I forged ahead with my preparations starting my pre-recorded audio tape of instructions and my watch alarms.

The level of agitation and anticipation rose as people began begging the clear sky to reach us in time. By 1:58 PM, the crescent Sun could occasionally be viewed without filters through thin clouds. The frequency of the Sun's reappearance from behind the cumulus was increasing as the seconds ticked by. A huge opening in the cloud cover was headed our way. It framed a small cloud which many people described as 'heart-shaped'. This was immediately interpreted as a good omen among a group of people who would normally dismiss such a concept as totally ridiculous. Thus are the powers of hope!

Eight minutes before totality, the Sun reappeared as I tried to co-align two video camcorders on one equatorial mount. But in the process, I bumped the tripod lost the Sun in both videos! I frantically searched for the Sun in the Hi-8 camcorder and reacquired it five minutes before contact. After focusing it, I made one more attempt to re-align my digital camcorder but quickly decided I risked loosing the Sun again in both camcorders. Reluctantly, I abandoned the digital camcorder to stare into blank sky. It was time to make sure my telescopes and 35mm cameras were still tracking and focused on the Sun.

Less than three minutes before second contact, the Sun moved into a generous piece of clear blue celestial real estate. The crowd went wild, many screaming "BIG HOLE! IT'S A BIG HOLE! WE'RE GOING TO SEE IT! YAHOOO!" Quickly surveying the sky, a dark blue band some ten degrees high was visible along the southwest horizon. It was the Moon's umbral shadow rushing towards us at 1600 miles per hour! I noted the eerie yellowish color of the sunlight and the harsh shadows. I looked towards my father who accompanied me on this, his very first total eclipse of the Sun. I thought of the many seasoned eclipse chasers in our group who had also brought along family members and friends to share in this extraordinary celestial event. What better way to introduce our loved ones to this all consuming passion of ours than to lure them here with the promise of a tropical vacation on a Caribbean cruise? And I gratefully admitted to myself "Yes! We are ALL going to see it!"

Diamond ring at
second contact
1998 by F. Espenak
Diamond Ring

I had spent three years preparing for this trip. I had performed thousands of computer calculations for the eclipse. I'd published a book and established an Internet web site for this event. And it was now about to happen just as the laws of celestial mechanics had dictated! And I was here to witness it myself one more time.. to personally experience and to be privy to the clockwork of the universe. I was humbled, awed and amazed by the events transpiring before me.

Someone shouted "Venus! I see Venus!" Another called out "Shadow bands!" But with one minute to go, I was concentrating on my ambitious photographic program and could afford no such distractions. With my watch alarms sounding, I removed five solar filters and quickly took my place behind my telescopes taking care not to bump anything. Shouts of "Diamond ring!" and "I see the corona in my video!" filled the air along with the music of my motor drives capturing frame after frame of the spectacle. As the last glimmer of sunlight vanished, the crowd roared its approval and I realized that I too had joined in with the shouts of jubilation. How I wanted to stop and look up at the sky and drink it all in! But I forced myself back to my photographing program and began to mechanically execute the exposure sequences I have rehearsed many times before.

Large Prominence

Large prominence visible at second contact.
Photo 1998 by Fred Espenak

Between camera sequences, I occasionally stole a glance at the corona and the scenes around me. The corona itself was a classic solar minimum or elliptically shaped corona. Through the ground glass focusing screen of my camera, a fine network of polar brushes were clearly visible at both poles. The western equatorial extension of the corona was broader and brighter, just as the magnetohydrodynamical models of Linker and Mikic (SAIC) had predicted. Near the north edge of the Sun's disk and close to the point of second contact, a magnificent red prominence was visible, even to the naked eye. Surrounding the Sun were two brilliant planets: Mercury 4 degrees to the northeast and Jupiter almost 3 degrees to the southwest. In all my eclipse experiences, I've never seen two bright planets so close to the Sun. It rendered an additional dimension of beauty to a spectacle which was already overwhelmingly glorious!

Solar Corona

Glorious Solar Corona!
(Composite of 7 negatives)
Photo 1998 by Fred Espenak

Midway through my fourth camera sequence, I was forced to stop as the edge of a small cloud obscured the eclipsed Sun. Fortunately, it only blocked our view for about ten seconds. I rapidly finished my exposure sequences almost a minute before third contact. Were two minutes gone already?! I spent the remainder of that time watching the Moon's limb as it slowly uncovered an incredibly rich forest of short red prominences along the Sun's western limb. Near the Sun's north pole, an exquisitely thin, delicate, tendril-like prominence was also visible.

Prominences at 3rd Contact

A forest of Prominences at 3rd Contact.
Photo 1998 by Fred Espenak

I remained glued to the sight waiting for the first bead of sunlight to emerge hailing the official end of totality. No sooner had the first bead appeared before it was joined by a short string of five or six companions. "CONTACT! BEADS! BAILY'S BEADS" I hollered! My left thumb danced over three remote camera releases as I continued to watch the beads merge into a brilliant white crescent.

Baily's Beads at 3rd Contact

Baily's Beads 3rd Contact.
Photo 1998 by Fred Espenak

Tears were running down my cheeks and my voice was choked with emotion. We had come so close to missing totality. The realization of our good fortune had just hit me. I was overwhelmed and relieved as the tension flowed out of me as my voice joined the shouts of the assembled throng!

Diamond Ring at 3rd Contact

Diamond Ring 3rd Contact.
Photo 1998 by Fred Espenak

A little girl cried out "Daddy! I don't want the Sun to be shiney yet!" No kidding!

We all thought the very same thing as hungry eyes were forced away from the corona by the Sun's blindingly bright crescent. Someone called out "What's the first question we ask after a total solar eclipse?" A veritable chorus simultaneously replied "Where's the next eclipse?"

Eighteen months from now, many of us will be waiting in the path of the Moon's shadow somewhere in Europe or Turkey!

Blue Bar

Fred Espenak photographs the eclipse
1998 by Fred Espenak
Fred & Eclipse

Postscript

We were later to learn that our friends aboard the MS Fascination were 'totally' successful in their ocean rendezvous with the Moon's shadow, thanks in large part to the considerable judgment, skill and experience of Captain Salvatore Rassello and his able bodied crew of the Fascination. I also want to thank Hotel Manager Gwendolyn Kruebbe for making herself available and responsive to our many needs time and again.

I want to especially thank Gary Spears, Adele Hitchcock and Crystal Ralph (Spears Travel) for attending to a million details and for working long and hard to make our Fascination eclipse cruise such a resounding success. We couldn't have done it without you!

Finally, I come to Ken Willcox. Ken, what can I possibly say? I can't ever thank you enough for making me a part of your 'eclipse family'! You've become the brother I never had. We have many more eclipses to chase together so get well soon! (Sadly, this was to be Ken's last eclipse. He died of bone cancer one yeasr later to the day.)

I met many new friends and resumed some old acquaintances on our eclipse cruise. This is one of the great bonuses of eclipse chasing because it attracts such a wonderful group of people. May we meet again sometime soon in the path of the Moon's shadow!


Visit the 1998 eclipse photo galleries: | A - Overview | B - Corona |



Order a Custom Print of the 1998 Solar Eclipse

Deluxe Set of Five Prints of the 1998 Solar Eclipse


Copyright Notice

All photographs, text and web pages are © Copyright 1998 by Fred Espenak, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved. They may not be reproduced, published, copied or transmitted in any form, including electronically on the Internet or WWW, without written permission of the author. The photos have been digitally watermarked.

The photographs may be licensed for commercial, editorial, and educational use. Contact Espenak (at MrEclipse) for photo use in print, web, video, CD and all other media.

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