We live in an era of short-term goals, from politicians always eyeing off the next poll to our general inability to plan ahead (“Where will I meet you?” “Text me when you get there”). This year, Queensland will host an event billions of years in the making. I’ve known about it – and been looking forward to it – since 2002, but astronomers have had 14 November 2012 circled on their calendars for generations. I’m talking about a total eclipse of the sun.
Total solar eclipses occur somewhere on earth every 18 months or so, but they’re not always easily accessible – I had to fly in a 747 to see one over Antarctica in 2003 – and getting to view one from Queensland is rare. The next one is in 2037.
Brisbane Planetarium curator Mark Rigby has seen seven, from Australia, PNG, the Libyan desert, Siberia, the mountains of China and remote Easter Island. “It is unlike any other experience in life. Time goes by in a flash as one senses, as does wildlife, that something unstoppable is in progress, a ballet set in motion billions of years ago,” he says. A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon blocks out the sun. Day turns to night and for the period known as “totality”, it is safe to look at the sun with the naked eye. Our nearest star appears as a golden ring (its outer atmosphere) with a deep black centre (the moon). The length of totality depends on the eclipse and your location.
This November, totality will last around two minutes. Seen from Cairns, first contact (where the moon first kisses the edge of the sun) is at 5.44am, totality from 6.38am to 6.40am, and second contact (where the moon leaves the sun) at 7.40am. At my first total eclipse in Ceduna, South Australia in 2002, I enjoyed a mere 32 seconds of totality but that was enough to light my eclipse evangelism! I haven’t stopped talking about them since!
Mark Rigby explains his addiction: “No two are the same. I find that I am only ever absorbing part of what is going on. You are left with a thirst for more. And it’s a good excuse to see places one might not otherwise visit! The appearance of the diamond ring effect (the last vestige of sunlight piercing through a valley on the limb or edge of the moon) is amazing and then follows totality looking like a circular hole of the blackest black surrounded by the pearly corona (outer atmosphere) of the sun. Then another diamond ring and totality is over. I feel on both a high and low simultaneously – it’s over. And then people talk of the next one!”
Some people say the total solar eclipse experience is like looking into the eye of God. It certainly gives you a deep connection with the universe. After all, as Rigby explains, they won’t occur forever. “The moon is drifting from the earth at 3.8cm per year. Around 600 million years from now, the moon will be too distant to block out the disc of the sun – no more total solar eclipses. We are lucky!”
Rigby says most people will view the eclipse from areas around Cairns, from Innisfail to Port Douglas. He says the sun will be low in the eastern sky so you’ll need a fairly flat, unobstructed eastern horizon. Find somewhere that also has a view of the west-northwest and you’ll see the moon’s dark shadow racing towards you. But, if you can’t get there yourself, Mark Rigby and I will broadcast the spectacle live during my breakfast show on 612 ABC Brisbane.
If you are planning a trip, consider booking a vehicle so you can get away from bad weather. That said, Mark Rigby cautions: “It is sometimes the case that people have moved and would have been better off staying put. In the end, it is probably a case of que sera sera – whatever will be, will be!” Finally, you will need special eclipse glasses or #14 welding goggles before and after totality – you are looking at the sun, after all. Just make sure you remove them as soon as totality begins, something I didn’t realise for valuable seconds in Ceduna (and which Mark Rigby has never let me forget!) See you in Cairns!