Solar eclipses, where the sun, moon, and earth align, occur on average about twice a year. However, most of the time the path of the moonís shadow crosses over water or some inaccessible place on land. Very rarely will a particular place be treated to the sight, for example the last total eclipse visible in Los Angeles occurred in 1724, and the next one wonít occur for at least a thousand years (I'm not sure exactly when, because Fred Espenak's table only goes to the year 3000!).
The point is, to see one you will most likely have to travel to some remote region of the world. This year was no exception, as we found ourselves traveling to the southern part of the Gobi desert to see the August 1st total eclipse of the sun.
When we witnessed our previous eclipse from Libya in 2006, totality lasted over four minutes. This yearís would only last about a minute and a half, so I was expecting it to be 35.564% as exciting, perhaps even bordering on humdrum since it would be my second eclipse. I couldnít have been more wrong.
For one thing, while the Libyan eclipse was high overhead, this eclipse was near the horizon, affording some very dramatic eclipse effects. The most amazing was a strange shadow cone which hung in the sky like the sun was wielding an enormous shield of darkness. It was like having an unimaginably huge, conical tornado of shadows come rushing at you at 1200 miles per hour, hovering with its eye over you for 90 seconds before moving on.
The journey out to the site heightened the drama even more. It was monsoon season, and we were "treated" to days of rare cloudiness and even some rain. Add to this the normal winds and dust storms of the region, and we were all feeling very nervous about our prospects for viewing the eclipse. The fact that we were driving out to the site the morning of the eclipse (rather than the day before, as we had in Libya) only increased our anxiety, and the long line of tour buses waiting for clearance to enter the viewing area really had us frantic. We did not know for sure we would have clear seeing until we finally arrived at the site, about an hour before first contact.
Dave had his usual complement of telescopes, cameras, and astronomy gear (read "luggage that is incredibly heavy and bulky yet extremely fragile, and very suspicious-looking to Chinese officials already paranoid about security for the Beijing Olympics"). Fortunately, we were able to get everything there and set up in time him to take some nice eclipse shots and video (see Dave's astrophoto page).
Truthfully, I didnít even notice the difference between one minute and four minutes of totality; they both seemed to be over in the blink of an eye!
I highly recommend adding "see a total solar eclipse" to your bucket list. The problem is, as eclipse addicts already know, you may not ever be able to cross it off!
Update 1406.12: Added article to newly created eclipse series