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This Hawai‘i Astronomer Chases Solar Eclipses Around the World Trying to Solve the Biggest Mysteries of the Sun

University of Hawai‘i astronomer Shadia Habbal treks through deserts, crosses oceans and braves polar bears in pursuit of a fleeting glimpse of a total solar eclipse.


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University of Hawai‘i Astronomer Shadia Habbal. 
Photo: Justin Bolle 

It didn’t bode well that the flight to Svalbard, a remote archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, about halfway between Norway and the North Pole, had been delayed by rain, snow and 50-mile-per-hour winds.

 

It was March 2015, and University of Hawai‘i astronomer Shadia Habbal had led some 20 scientists, engineers and technicians halfway across the planet in the hopes of capturing new images and scientific observations of a total solar eclipse, gathering data that could help unlock some of the biggest mysteries of the sun. But, even though she had been planning the expedition for more than four years, she knew there was one thing critical to her work over which she had absolutely no control: clear skies.

 

Cooling his heels in the Oslo Airport, Judd Johnson, a Colorado-based engineer and one of Habbal’s longtime collaborators, wasn’t feeling optimistic. Planning for an eclipse on an island in the Arctic Circle—in March, no less—was risky at best. Plus, he’d traveled to Svalbard a year earlier on a scouting trip with Habbal, and the weather was anything but good. “I think we saw the sun for four hours over a week’s time,” he recalls. “It wasn’t very encouraging.”

 

In her two decades of traveling the world as an eclipse chaser, Habbal has had her share of disappointment. It’s a delicate science. After shepherding her team and instruments into what’s often a remote and inaccessible part of the world, she’ll get only one chance to observe the eclipse during a window of totality that’s usually no longer than two or three minutes. A sudden shower, a foggy day, a dust storm that passes through at just the wrong moment is all it takes to render an expedition that may have taken years of planning a complete loss.

 

Even within the scientific community, the enormous logistical challenges and the unmitigatable risk of total failure have led some to question the value of eclipse research. But the fact remains that science currently has no better way of observing the solar corona—the mysterious atmosphere that surrounds the sun and plays a key role in the solar wind and magnetic forces that affect our planet—than during a total solar eclipse. 

 

Earthbound telescopes can be outfitted with a tool called a coronagraph, blocking the glare of the solar disk to create a kind of artificial eclipse. But the corona is still so faint that it all but disappears against the blue sky, making it difficult to observe in normal daylight. Space-based telescopes can get a clearer view, but they’re limited by sensors and technology that are now out of date.

 

Snow drifts along the road leading to the old auroral observatory about three miles from the town of Longyearbyen, in Norway. 
Photos: Courtesy of Gary Nitta, Univeristy of Hawai‘i Institute For Astronomy 

 

“The standard criticism is, ‘You’re at the mercy of the weather, is it worth all this effort and expense?” she says. “I say, ‘Yes.’”

 

Not that Habbal won’t hedge her bets. 

 

For an eclipse in such a remote and challenging environment as the Arctic, she’s taken an unusual number of precautions to ensure her team doesn’t walk away empty handed. On Svalbard, she’s secured the use of an old observatory to set up her instruments. Part of her team will work there during the eclipse, while another group will be making observations from an empty hangar at the Svalbard airport, 10 miles away. At the same time, she’s dispatched a smaller crew to the Faroe Islands, off Denmark. A fourth team will record observations from a special plane and follow the path of totality at 49,000 feet—not an ideal viewing environment, due to the movement of the platform and the thick Plexiglas windows, but well above any bad weather. Finally, a colleague has secured the use of a second plane out of Ireland, so Habbal will send instruments on that flight as well, at a lower altitude of 10,000 feet.

 

But, if Habbal felt any anxiety about the upcoming trip as she went through her final preparations in February, it was less about weather than wildlife.

 

 

“My biggest fear is polar bears,” she confided, surrounded by papers, books and instruments in her office at the Institute for Astronomy in Mānoa. “Because they’re lethal, and they’re huge.”

 

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