Student-professor team ventures to Gabon to chase solar eclipse totality

The recent eclipse allowed students to view and photograph the normally elusive solar corona. --Photo courtesy ofAllen Davis and Jay Pasachoff
The recent eclipse allowed students to view and photograph the normally elusive solar corona. –Photo courtesy ofAllen Davis and Jay Pasachoff

Two weeks ago, while his classmates were adjusting to northern Massachusetts’ rapidly dropping temperature, Allen Davis ’14 was bathing in the warm sun of sub-Saharan Africa. Or at least he would have been, had the moon not been blocking the sun in a solar eclipse. This, however, did not bother Davis, who was there precisely because the moon was blocking the sun.

On Oct. 29, Davis traveled with Zophia Edwards ’06, Visiting Professor of Astronomy Marek Demianski (who has been a visiting professor of astronomy at the College on eight different occasions), Davis, Professor of Astronomy Jay Pasachoff and other astronomers to Libreville, the capital of Gabon. Pasachoff received funding from the National Geographic Society for the expedition. The team chose Gabon because it was, according to Pasachoff, “the first country that the path [of the eclipse] traversed after its path across the Atlantic Ocean, so it provided the longest totality possible to photograph from dry land.” This totality – the visible obscuration of the sun during the eclipse –  lasted only 59 seconds, but in Kenya the totality was only 11 seconds.

The expedition’s purpose was to photograph the solar corona, which is the “faint, hot plasma [that] surrounds the sun,” according to Davis. This was a unique opportunity to observe the corona because as Davis explains, “the corona is impossible to see because the sun’s photosphere is a million times brighter … only a total solar eclipse allows a good view of the inner corona.” They also photographed two coronal mass ejections, which are plumes of plasma thrown off the sun at incredibly high speeds.

In Gabon, the group’s daily itinerary was busy. While in Libreville for the first two days, Pasachoff gave two lectures: one (in French) to students at a local school and another at the U.S. embassy. They stayed in La Lope, near Lope National Park, for the rest of the trip, where they went on two safari tours and saw “a number of wild animals including forest elephants, monkeys, water buffalo and warthogs,” Davis said.

The day before the eclipse, the team drove two hours down an unpaved, bumpy road to the village of Mikongo, where the local villagers welcomed them with a traditional dance.

The team’s trip to Gabon coincided with the local rain season, so there was a good chance the team wouldn’t be able to see anything despite their long journey. “The chance of clear weather, based on 20 years of satellite views, was only about 20 percent, so we didn’t really know if we would be able to see the eclipse,” Pasachoff said. Davis added that “given the low chances of clear weather, I had not gotten my hopes up of seeing anything memorable.”

The morning of the eclipse was completely overcast, but the sky began to clear as the day went on. As some sun began to poke through, the group became excited that the sky might fully clear, “but no one dared express confidence that we would definitely see totality,” Davis recalled and risk jinxing their good fortune with the weather. Although the clouds had almost completely cleared an hour before totality, a rainstorm suddenly broke, threatening to jeopardize the whole project. Miraculously, the storm lasted only five minutes.

Davis said that these few minutes leading up to totality were “incredibly intense” for him, but that once the storm passed, “it was exhilarating to know that we really would see totality after all!” With clear skies, the group was able to see the entire totality, which lasted from 2:56 to 2:57 p.m. local time. Pasachoff says he will always remember, “the diamond ring, the dazzling brightness at the edge of the sun that marks the beginning of totality.” “When the diamond ring appeared … I just stood in awe,” Davis said. “It was beautiful and terrifying to see the sun disappear. The sun had been replaced by a black hole, with rays of white light emanating in all directions.”

All in all, the mission was a success. “It was a powerful experience for me, and I certainly hope it is not the last total solar eclipse I have the privilege of seeing!” Davis said. Pasachoff also hopes that “everyone reading this makes sure to be in the path of totality during the [solar eclipse of] August 21, 2017, [which] will cross the continental U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina, and I wish everyone clear skies for that.”