2011: An Eclipse Odyssey, An observing log by Ananya Sharma

A chance worth taking, a thing to be regretted if missed, an event of wonder- that’s what the lunar eclipse that took place at the night of 15-16th June, 2011 was.

I have always been interested in astronomy, and my father’s zeal and dedication towards it made my interest turn into passion. That’s why when I heard about this eclipse, I couldn’t pass the chance to witness it. On 15th June, my father Rajiv Sharma, my cousin- Hrithik and I packed some bags and set out for Siliserh Lake near Alwar, Rajasthan. We were accompanied by two other keen amateur astronomers- Puneit Uncle and Neha’ji. The site was selected as it is secluded from humanity and surrounded by small mountains, free from urban light pollution.

A dark site was selected as this lunar eclipse was special in several respects and held a lot of promise:

  • It was to be a very deep eclipse i.e. the moon was to pass very close to the center of Earth’s umbral shadow. The result- a very dark eclipse.
  • Due to volcanic activity in recent past including one in June, 2011 itself, the Earth’s atmosphere contained a lot of volcanic debris and ash which was likely to block out a lot of sun’s light from refracting on to the Moon during eclipse. Again, the result- a darker eclipse than usual.
  • The Moon was positioned right near the center of the Milky Way the densest part of our galaxy. So at the time of totality we would be able to observe the eclipse with a spectacular stellar background.

It was a rare opportunity as the probability of all these factors occurring together is very less and hence we decide to ‘take a chance’ and drive to a remote dark location even though there was cloud cover.

The five of us reached Siliserh around 8 pm. There was a thick cloud cover, and our hopes took a nosedive. We briefly considered going back to Delhi, but decided against it after making a few calls and finding out that there were clouds in Delhi as well. Also there were predictions about sky at Siliserh getting clear later.

We rented two rooms in Siliserh Palace- a Rajasthan tourism resort. However all our time was spent outside on the terrace. A lot of preparations were going on for the viewing. We were setting up binoculars and cameras on tripods and laying mats to lie on.

Miraculously, the sky started clearing and thinning around 11 p.m. By the time, the eclipse began, there was no cloud to be seen- the sky had become crystal clear.

The eclipse was to start at 11:52 pm, so we had everything ready before that and were lying in anticipation. Finally the eclipse began. It became immediately noticeable. Hrithik and I were writing down our observations and Puneit uncle was snapping pictures. We had two binoculars, and everyone took turns at it.

I seemed like the shadow of the Earth was slowly engulfing the moon. The visible part of the moon slowly started fading away into a reddish-brown tinge. Finally at 12:52 am totality occurred! Everyone started clapping and celebrated.

The sky changed remarkably from the time the eclipse started to the time totality took place. The moonlight had gone, the sky had become very dark and due to that we could see the stars very clearly. Suddenly the sky seemed full of stars- glittering like diamonds. I had never seen stars shining so brightly and in such a great number ever before (except perhaps when we went to Hatu Peak in 2009 for the Leonid meteor shower.) It was a breath-taking view. The whole surrounding was serene and tranquil. The Milky way was very prominent. It appeared as a band across the sky. It was a hypnotic scene. We were able to observe many constellations and star clusters. Many star clusters (M6, M7) and nebulae (M8, M20) in Scorpio- Sagittarius region were visible to naked eye.

The stars of surrounding constellations- by the side of and below the Moon- mainly Ophiuchus, Scorpio and Sagittarius seemed to form a shining Necklace around the Moon.
At the time of mid eclipse- ‘Greatest Eclipse’- the Moon had turned grayish, with a ring around it. Surprisingly, the Monn appeared somewhat reddish to naked eye, but through binoculars it appeared dark Gray with ‘creamy’ ring resembling Sun’s Corona at the time of Total Solar Eclipse (which also I was fortunate to witness from Sasaram as part of AAAD team in July, 2009). To me, the ring appeared to be slightly reddish but most majority opinion perceived it to be ‘creamy’. The Moon became feature less. It was very difficult to find and focus it in camera (as told by Puneit uncle). Many stars appeared much brighter than the Moon.

The Moon was of the same brightness as a nearby star- we all agreed on that. (The star was Theta Oph, visual magnitude 3.27- inputs from my father)

We watched the eclipse throughout; witnessed all the four stages of contact i.e. starting of the eclipse, starting of totality, ending of totality, and finally ending of the eclipse. We also pointedly ate chips to counter the myth that we should not eat during eclipses. When the moon had passed through the 4th stage we all started clapping again and congratulating each other on the success of the trip.

After a short power nap of 45 minutes we started back to Delhi. My father and Puneit uncle even went to the office on 16th- a tough job but no doubt made easy by the energy infused by this exhilarating experience.

In the end our efforts to travel to far off place and keep awake the whole night was well rewarded and it was a fulfilling experience to witness a very ‘special’ eclipse- special due to combination of circumstances explained above. As per newspaper reports, similar eclipse would take place again only in year 2141- a rather long wait!

The nature has some amazing phenomenon. It was a remarkable moment, which is etched in my memory forever. I feel privileged to have witnessed both Total Solar Eclipse and Total Lunar Eclipse- both of them special and Spectacular.