THE 2002 ANNULAR SOLAR ECLIPSE IN THE MARIANAS ISLANDS
Tinian was a potentially idyllic spot, nestled just north of Guam in the western Pacific Ocean. However, since September 11, 2001, the skies have fewer planes and every aircraft seems to be completely full of people. We had to fly from Houston to Newark, Newark to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Guam. But luckily we were able to use frequent flier miles to upgrade to Business class. Then, we overnighted at a dumpy hotel called the ‘Vacation Inn’ on Guam before flying to Tinian where we spent 3 nights prior to the eclipse. The highlight of the pre-eclipse activity was our flyover of the North Pole. To get from Newark to Hong Kong, flights are cleared to go directly over the pole and it was an eagerly anticipated event even though it was mostly overcast below us. The 15hours and 5 minutes seemed to fly by quickly as we watched movie after movie on the Boeing 777 aircraft. We next spent 7 hours at the new Hong Kong airport before continuing onward to Guam.
On arrival in Guam the first problem manifested itself. My briefcase containing a camcorder, solar filter, radio, etc. jammed hopelessly and would not unlock. I had to break the lock and thus ruin the briefcase. Luckily we learned there was a 24 hour K-mart not far away from our hotel and we talked the hotel into driving us over to it. There I found almost an exact replica of my broken briefcase, a better backpack, and a new suitcase since our last one had cracked following years of travel. After two hours at K-mart all seemed right with the world!
Tinian is a relatively small island with World War II history. Its claim to fame is that of the base where the Enola Gay took off to drop the first atomic bomb on Japan. We were able to see the still intact runways, concrete air raid shelters, deserted Japanese communications, operations centers and ammo dumps. It is ironic that so many Japanese visit Tinian given its history. We also visited a place called ‘Suicide Cliffs’ where many Japanese jumped to their deaths on the rocks below to avoid capture by Americans during the War. At the Dynasty Hotel we saw an ‘eclipse special’ advertised. For $50, tourists who had arrived at Saipan (a neighboring island with direct flights to Japan) could take the ferry from Saipan to Tinian, have breakfast at the hotel, watch the eclipse and return by ferry.
Our base of operations was the Lorilynn motel, a clean and cheap place to stay compared to the Tinian Dynasty Hotel – a very expensive property where only Japanese tourists can afford to stay. Not many tourists come to Tinian and those that do come to dive. They are pretty laid back on this island and even after numerous requests the hotel never would fax that our reservation was confirmed. Once they took your reservation, they considered you confirmed. We met my friend Friedhelm Dorst from Germany who specializes in dangerous eclipse observation. He uses ND 3 or 4 filters to try to photograph the corona during annular eclipses — and he has succeeded! This was Freddy’s 37th solar eclipse and he found his spot on the hotel roof overlooking the mayor’s office with wedges and cinder blocks to prop up his two cameras.
Now it was the moment of truth. In Tinian it was actually June 11 when the eclipse occurred (June 10 back in the USA). Mid eclipse was to occur at 8:11am and I decided on a site 2.74 km north of the northern edge of the path of annularity. After scouting the island the previous day we had seen every possible site. Being at this spot would not allow us to see a complete unbroken ring around the sun; instead it would permit viewing of the tangency between the moon and sun creating the Baily’s Beads phenomenon as sunlight streams through the irregular mountains of the darkened lunar limb. Hopefully, it would also be a location completely devoid of onlookers.
My earlier date miscalculation was not without some consequence. I was not permitted to change our inter-island return flight that was set for 9:00am. This meant we had to observe the eclipse, drive to the Tinian airport in time to check luggage, return our rental car and get on the aircraft. First contact was at 7:02 am and Lynn and I were in place around 6:30. I had selected a site on the island’s main street called Broadway. On Tiniaan, though, the streets are not labeled and they don’t need to be if you live there since everybody knows which street is which. The site was on the median between the two lanes of the street on a mostly deserted roadway (although the major north-south road on the island). It was within sight of a World War II Japanese command post. The following 3 photos were taken by J. Lynn Palmer.
Not far away were the pits where the atomic bomb was loaded on the B-29 that flew it to Hiroshima.
I slowly picked up the pieces, expecting the worst, and began to reattach everything. Somehow, not one part was damaged and everything, including the delicate cables, were restored to their original attached configuration after a total vertical fall of about 5 feet.
The Meade ETX was a newly bought telescope with no problems except one. Due to my frequent job travels, I had little time to prepare for the eclipse. So, I had forgotten to install the required 3 AA batteries that operated the motor drive; I had also left my tools at home. But because the mount had been decently polar aligned, the manual adjustment to track the sun was only needed in Right Ascension. As the minutes ticked by, the clouds seemed to have no pattern as they successfully kept the sun under wraps. Down the road every so often a patch of sunlight appeared indicating that rays of sun were reaching the ground through tiny gaps between clouds. By now, it was 2 minutes before central eclipse. I could now detect a clearing trend to the north and sent Lynn running with her camcorder up the road about 100 meters. There she videotaped the beginning of annularity. At almost precisely 8:11, however, the sun unexpectedly burst forth at my site and I was able to find the thin slender and now nearly circular sun with the black disc of the moon inside of it.