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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“A Snowball’s Chance in Hell”
Setting up the observing site in a hangar at the airport in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. In the photo are Haosheng Lin (left) and Pavel Starha (right).
PHOTOS: COURTESY OF GARY NITTA, UNIVERISTY OF HAWAI‘I INSTITUTE FOR ASTRONOMY
Lin checking his telescope.
Arriving in Svalbard a day behind schedule, the storm had passed, but it was still chilly and overcast, and the team quickly set about retrieving and organizing their equipment. Not willing to risk a delicate lens or priceless scientific instrument being lost or broken in shipping, Habbal and her team had long ago adopted the habit of carrying all their gear to the site by hand, packing sturdier items in their luggage, and carrying fragile instruments in carry-on bags, a practice that has earned them the self-imposed nickname “solar wind Sherpas.”
This time, though, two bulky instrument mounts, too heavy to travel as baggage, had been shipped ahead. When Johnson went to pick them up, his heart sank to see that a large supporting base plate was missing. “Things were no longer strapped down,” he says. “Apparently they had taken them off the pallets, and lost one piece, which was kind of critical.”
On the island of 2,600 people, the team found a mechanic with a heavy-equipment repair shop, who promised to rummage in his pile of scrap and see what he could do. With just two days to prepare before the eclipse, Johnson turned his attention to the remaining equipment and hoped for the best.
Then, “much to our surprise, at 11 o’clock at night, we got a text message saying, ‘I’ve finished the base, it’s outside in the snow.’”
The new piece was massive, but it would work. It took two men to heave it onto the back of a snowmobile and lug it out to the main observatory, staggering under its weight through the heavy snow. In the final hours before the eclipse, the team rushed to make its final preparations.
In the last few days before the eclipse, Habbal and the team watched the weather carefully. A day earlier, the clouds had looked like they might be breaking up. Then, the morning of the eclipse, the sun rose into a sky that was perfectly clear. “We were very fortunate,” Johnson says. “I wouldn’t have given it a snowball’s chance in hell.”
The total eclipse of the sun cast the researchers into temporary darkness.
They rose early and hurried to their stations. At the observatory, Habbal and her team opened the doors and windows, giving the room time to cool off and equalize to the temperature outside.
Although the scientists stayed bundled in their down parkas, hats and gloves, at 20 degrees below freezing, the computers that controlled their cameras were being pushed to the limit. Then, as the eclipse began to approach totality, the computers crashed. With just a few minutes to go, the team quickly rebooted.
As the computers began a two-minute countdown to totality, the team members set their equipment to record. Then came the hard part—they had to leave. Habbal feared that even their footsteps on the old observatory’s creaky wooden floors would cause enough motion to blur their images. “We all stepped outside and left the cameras running. I was in such a daze. I couldn’t do anything except look at the sun.”
It was a rare moment. Although she’s now been to 13 eclipses around the world, Habbal usually finds herself glued to her computers and instruments, sparing no more than a few seconds to admire the view. Now, standing close enough to the observatory door so she could hear the reassuring click of her cameras, for the next two minutes and 20 seconds, she took it all in.
Even after 20 years, she says, the sight is awe inspiring.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” she says. “You’re witnessing the mechanics of the universe—the motion of the moon, and the sun, and the Earth.”
As the eclipse passed out of totality, she hurried back inside to check her equipment. The cameras had worked perfectly, capturing stunning images of the corona in its full glory. It would be months before she’d be able to pore through her results and properly analyze the data, but she’d gotten what she came for. This time, at least, she wouldn’t be going home empty-handed.
Minutes later, the computers crashed again.