Photos from the Field

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Rock Stories from Yiwu

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Can China control the weather?

I read a press release today from Xinhua News Agency about Beijing firing over 1000 rain dispersal rockets to break up a series of rain clouds that were planing on crashing the Olympic opening ceremonies. Well if you saw the opening ceremonies, they were not only beautiful but dry. What’s interesting about this story is that we were also told in Yiwu (although after the eclipse) that several rockets were fired to clear our little view of the Eclipse. I mean that is top-notch service, although after you watch the eclipse webcast replay you might say, ” hey… as long you were firing off some cloud killing rockets about a few extras for us nervous eclipse chasers.”


Total Eclipse from 27,000 ft.

The majority of the eclipse team flew back to the U.S. yesterday. It was a fairly uneventful 20-hour-plus flight with inflight movies, pretzels, and screaming children. It would have been so much cooler if we could have pulled up our window shades to see this. 


XJTV Eclipse Teaser


Return to Urumqi

The drive back to Urumqi felt a bit faster than the trip out. It was pretty hot, probably above 40 °C most of the way. In contrast to our trip to Yiwu (the outbound trip), it actually rained a bit, creating a cooler surreal trip across the desert. It’s hard to ignore the irony that Beijing has been dying for rain to cut down on its airborne pollution, while Xinjiang was engulfed in clouds and rain, scaring eclipse chasers with every breeze. (Of course, today we know it worked out). Below is a time-compressed video of of our trip out to the Weizi Gorge (Yiwu) along China’s cloud-covered Silk Road.

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A look back at clouds

The group has had a real love hate relationship with clouds on this trip. The cloudscape of the Weizi Gorge was so spectacular it was easy to overlook that our fluffy friends were blocking our main reason for lugging 1700 lbs. of gear out to the edge of the Gobi Desert. Here’s a short time-lapse video of the sky at our camp one day before the eclipse.

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You’re looking at a very wide shot of today’s eclipse from just north of Yiwu, China. What I love about this photo is the sunlight creeping over the edge of the mountain on right side of the image and how it backlights the clouds that tormented us all week long. Our location, in relation to the path of totality’s center line, meant we could see light escaping from around the shadow of the moon. The end result was a 360 degree sunset.

It was incredibility beautiful, in some ways it eclipsed the eclipse in terms of “wow, I can’t believe how amazing this is.” Our eclipse team was on a wide desert plain surrounded by mountains and the center of that became dark and cold during the eclipse but all along the surrounding mountain ridges it glowed with color. Amazing!

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Stonehenge of the Gobi Desert

A Stonehenge like structure in Xinjiang Province China

After writing my first post on sunrises and moonrises I was pleased to walk from our site in the barren desert to our neighbor site, a plaza with several super sundials, an orrery, and a local “Stonehenge”.

The green of the plaza is due to plastic “grass”. But football is not played on this “astroturf”, instead science exploration is done here.

The “Gobi Stonehenge” is made with a central pillar where a viewer stands and 6 pillars that mark the positions of sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes and the solstices. There are also pillars to mark due north and south. When the sun passes over the south pillar it marks local solar noon.

The shape of an observatory like this one depends upon the latitude, and my caculations show that  the excellent Chinese astronomer who designed this one  did a superb job. 

The local science guides took me around the site, I was the first american tourist to visit this spot. They were wonderful enthusiastic volunteers, well trained in astronomy. I learned later that they were impressed that their very first visitor could do the calculations to confirm the shape of this stonehenge in his head. Of course it helped that I had taught a lesson on this very topic and published it on my web site: Build your own ancient observatory.

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Passing the Bus

That\'s what that yellow line is for!

Passing busses and trucks on a Chinese highway, the modern silk road, reminds me of the speed of the shadow of the moon during an eclipse.

There is a lot of traffic on two-lane Chinese highways, including many slow trucks. I was surprised to find that the highways are actually three lanes; traffic in both directions passes by blowing a horn then pulling out and driving down the yellow line. I’m glad we have a professional driver!

I notice that when a truck is going 30 miles per hour and we are passing it at 45 miles per hour it appears, when we look at the truck, that we are moving past it at 15 miles per hour, the difference in the speeds.

The moon orbits the earth at a speed approximately 2000 miles per hour. The shadow of the moon travels along with the moon at the same speed. But the shadow falls upon the surface of the earth which is also moving. At the equator the earth rotates one 24,000 mile circumference in one 24-hour day so the surface moves along at 1000 miles per hour. The surface of the earth and the orbit of the moon travel in the same direction, so just like our bus the shadow of the moon during an eclipse moves across the surface at a relative velocity of about 1000 miles per hour. 

As we stand on the desert waiting for the shadow of the moon to create a total solar eclipse at our position it is exciting to realize that it is traveling toward us at a thousand miles per hour, much faster than the jet aircraft that brought us to China. Luckily a direct hit by a thousand mile per hour shadow doesn’t hurt; in fact, being hit by a total solar eclipse is a wonderful thing!

This explains why the shadow of the moon will take its first bite out of the bottom of the setting sun. The sun appears to move toward the west because the earth surface is rotating toward the east; the moon is also moving toward the east faster so it overtakes and passes the sun in the sky.
Note about the length of totality: Even at a thousand miles per hour it still will take 2 minutes for the 30-mile diameter shadow of the moon to cross over me, and that is why this eclipse will last only 2 minutes.


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