by Paul D. Maley, NASA Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society

Eclipse path over Antarctica. Courtesy X. Jubier.

Circumstances (approximate) in the air.  Courtesy X. Jubier.


The moon’s shadow edge, clearly defined on the earth. Photo by Paul Maley
There was no way this time to organize our own expedition for this eclipse due to logistical limitations and costs; however, our first choice was to fly a chartered aircraft over Antarctica originating from Australia in order to see this eclipse. Before we could book more than seats for just myself and Lynn Palmer, the rest of the eclipse window seats had been sold and so we could not advertise a group tour. We made the decision to fly over Antarctica for the November 23, 2003 total solar eclipse about one year earlier. It was one of two ways to see it—either fly through the path from Australia or from Chile, or take an icebreaker on a 4-week journey. From the cost standpoint, the ship was priced between US$18,000 and 35,000; by air the cost ranged from $2,500 to $11,000. We elected to fly business class given the potential length of the trip from Houston; this was a good decision from the standpoint of the noneclipse travel but not so good during the eclipse as we explain later.

We flew from Houston to Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia arriving the day of the World Cup rugby final where hotels were packed to capacity. We had about 24 hours of recovery time before joining the Boeing 747-400 charter aircraft at Sydney airport for the longest ever domestic flight on record: 14.3 hours from Sydney to Antarctica and back to Sydney (no Antarctica landing was allowed). We met friends who had been with us on previous expeditions: John Duran, John Beattie, Friedhelm Dorst, Deryl Barr, and Michael Gill to name a few. Onboard were a total of 110 eclipse chasers plus 186 Antarctic sightseers and crew.

After a 4.5 hour layover in Melbourne the flight really began. Immediately a potentially unpleasant controversy erupted. In our upper deck row, we were informed that the organizers (Croydon Travel) sent out a note telling those passengers in the last 4 rows that all seats must be reclined during the eclipse. This was driven by the first row (#16) whose view was restricted; in order to improve the view for essentially one person, the organizers figured they should inconvenience those in seats behind; to do so would have been horrible since one would have to be a contortionist to fit body and gear up against the window and would have negated use of any tripods. I protested vigorously and after some time Croydon amicably solved the problem.


Our windows are on the upper deck, 4th and 5th windows to the right of the exit door.
There was only about an hour of real darkness and we had hoped to view an aurora or even noctilucent clouds; alas, this was not to be. My expectations in successfully photographing the eclipse with clarity were not high but we aimed to enjoy the experience no matter what the result. After all, we were going to see the one continent we had never seen before —– Antarctica.


Sunrise from the Antarctic and the clouds we saw for hours and hours.
In each business class row, there were two windows, one window for each passenger. We performed a real-time simulation and realized that utilizing the windows would be a tight fit. They were not very wide and in fact, the economy class windows were actually better! How I wished I had not reversed my original reservation (a row of 3 economy class sets)! From the economy rows in the back of the aircraft the views toward the ground, where we hoped to view the approach and recession of the moon’s shadow, were perfect. But from the upper deck, they were restricted not in the physical sense but in the actual width of the windows themselves. On the lower deck the business class windows were about the same but in first class the windows were a bit more accessible.

We worked with what we had and still another problem was noted. A small side compartment was located between the window and each business class eat so that extra storage could be provided for each passenger in addition to overhead space. While this was an amenity for the average traveler it made placing a tripod up against the window ever so difficult. I abandoned the tripod idea and decided to place cameras on top of this compartment and use it as a shelf. 

Location of my tripod up against the window and inside the storage compartment.

I am in position trying to get enough room to shoot out the narrow window.
The plan was to fly over Antarctica and let all the passengers take photos; a snowstorm raged below and we only saw brief views (mostly just cloud) until about 10 minutes before time to set up for the eclipse intercept. The passengers who came to see Antarctica were a bit disappointed, but the aircraft rose back up to altitude of 35,000 feet and changed course. Tension built and directions were issued again for those on the non-eclipse side of the aircraft to stay away from the eclipse side. The regular Antarctic sightseeing prices were only a fraction of what the eclipse prices were on this flight. This directive seemed to work fine though many of us thought there would be interference from the other non-eclipse passengers jockeying for any type of view. One fear I had was that somebody would begin using a flash camera during totality.

Second contact approached as we neared the time of 7 hours and 40 minutes after takeoff from Melbourne. We had seen lots of cloud but at our elevation, we were above it all. The partial phase of the eclipse could be seen sporadically as the aircraft had to maneuver off and on. Second contact was predicted to be at 9:44am Australia time near latitude 70S and 93E.

I brought a Nikon D100, which I had only sporadically used before. It had auto and manual modes but in order to change exposure time and f/stop I needed a bit of light. I forgot to bring a red flashlight for use during the eclipse. I figured I could manually remember what to do and adjust things in real time. Big mistake. I also used two camcorders and set them in manual mode. One recorded Lynn and the sounds and commentary; the other was used to record the moon’s shadow and to a small extent the sun and Venus and Mercury, the two planets visible to the right of the sun. Just before totality a flash went off behind me and I complained to Croydon personnel who immediately fixed the problem (I had hoped they would eject the offending passenger from the plane, but this was not fulfilled).

There were voice announcements with the countdown to second contact. Finally about 16 seconds after the first warning the diamond ring was seen and totality really began. With the aircraft speeding along, totality extended from 1m55s to about 2m37s by my count between diamond rings. But wait, the view prior to 2nd contact is worth talking about. From the rear of the aircraft we could look down and see nothing but solid cloud. On the horizon a separate high level arc of cloud could be seen in silhouette faintly illuminated by the sun. As totality approached, the surface of the clouds directly between us and the sun developed pastel and tan overtones. This unique coloration was verified from our still photos. In the minute before second contact the shadow of the moon began to make itself seen. It literally walked across the landscape from left to right. As it moved, a gold glow was seen separating the distant horizon upper layer of cloud from the general horizon clouds in a manner similar to that seen by Shuttle astronauts in orbit. 

Looking toward the aft end of the Qantas Boeing 747 you can see the limb of the earth and the high altitude cloud silhouetted as totality is approaching. By Lynn Palmer. All photos below were taken by Lynn Palmer.
The moon’s shadow on cloud was very distinct such that a real demarcation line existed. This is a sight we could never see before from the ground. About 10 minutes before second contact Venus could be sighted; then as the shadow passed under the sun, 2nd contact occurred in perfect symmetry with the demarcation line. The shadow during totality appeared as a fat “V” shape with the sun only 13 degrees or so above the horizon. Inside the airplane I could not see camera dials. No way to adjust anything except by looking inside the viewfinder to see the lit up display and hoping the thumb wheel dials would make the appropriate adjustments. Focus was not easily accomplished and I am sad to say it was truly difficult to get a definitive focus with the D100. 

Pastel and tan color, the clouds below the aircraft began to take on these beautiful hues just before 2nd contact. Notice the small crystals (white dots) that have formed on the aircraft window. Photo by Lynn Palmer as are most of the remainder in this report.

The moon’s shadow during mid totality. However, you can see the area on the clouds still sunlit off to the right. By Lynn Palmer, as of 11/30/03 on SKY AND TELESCOPE’s web page.
Outside, the sky was the darkest of any previous eclipse I had seen due to our altitude above most of the atmosphere. Mercury and Venus were both apparent and later Freddy told me he could spot Delta Scorpii as the dimmest star (I do not recall if this was in binoculars or in a camcorder). I could see the corona out to 3.5 solar radii but another observer who wore dark glasses in the half hour preceding totality spotted the corona out to 6 radii. The solar atmosphere was asymmetric to an extent that is reminiscent of both solar maximum and solar minimum conditions. It was generally circular with one spike in the 7:00 position and 3 others to the upper right. I did not see Baily’s Beads but really was focusing more on the shadow than anything else. I realized that through 2 panes of Plexiglas it was unlikely that I could get good photos. One prominence could also be seen in approximately the 7:00 position toward 3rd contact. If there was a comet near the sun, it could not be easily made out.

As usual the eclipse was over before it should have been. The second diamond ring jumped into view and the moon’s shadow began to move ahead of the aircraft. I continued to watch it as long as I could—about 120 additional seconds had elapsed before I lost sight of it on the horizon. I did not spot shadow bands on the aircraft skin either before or after totality even though I looked hard for them. Small crystals formed on the outside of one of the window panes and they were apparently in some of our photos. 

How we looked after the successful eclipse.
Most all the people on the eclipse side were very experienced eclipse chasers, thus there was not the usual euphoria publically exhibited by first-timers. Interviewing a few of them after the eclipse it seemed that everyone wasquite satisfied by the overall experience. The person in front of me had a GPS receiver with an antenna attached to the window. He commented that his batteries failed just before totality. The person behind me had an equipment failure also during the eclipse. I failed to achieve a good time exposure since I had to remove the tripod to make enough room to access the window. I hand-held the camera for as long as 2 seconds and it was sloppy—never again to make such a real time decision. Always consider a plan and stick to it. I do not think there has ever been an eclipse that I did not learn something. Freddy brought his eclipse brick which he used in Tinian to support his camera and found it useful on the plane also. 

Friedhelm Dorst explaining how normal it is to carry a brick on an aircraft to stabilize a camera. It gets my vote.
After the eclipse the flight continued to view Antarctica and this time we were not disappointed. Icebergs were seen along and inside the coast and the aircraft made a number of circular runs so we all could get good views. It was quite beautiful and distinct from our experience over Greenland before the May 31 eclipse. 

Unique iceberg.
Was it worth what we paid for our seats? Well, the short answer is ‘yes’. 

Newspaper headlines extolled the results of the World Cup final but also expressed how we felt about the eclipse!
A successful eclipse is always worth it and this was no exception. Despite some minor shortcomings and even not getting the best photos, I had very realistic expectations that to achieve success you had to go with the best plan and this was it. It had worked and we saw it! Although I organize all of RING OF FIRE EXPEDITIONS trips, it was not possible to coordinate this aircraft intercept. A great vote of thanks to Glenn Schneider who organized the intercept for us and the staff of Croydon Travel of Australia for pulling it all together.

This was not the end of the trip. Immediately thereafter we spent a couple of relaxing days in Sydney and watched as the world’s largest cruise ship, the STAR PRINCESS left the harbor under a dazzling fireworks display. 

The STAR PRINCESS, Venus and the crescent moon as seen over Sydney, Australia.

Fireworks illuminate the Sydney Opera House as the STAR PRINCESS makes it way into the bay. 

View from the top of the Harbor Bridge.
Earlier in the day, Lynn scaled the 134 meter tall Sydney Harbor Bridge as part of a Bridge Climb program that offers the most spectacular adventure in Sydney.

We jogged almost daily in the park between the Marriott Hotel and the Opera House, featuring bevies of flying foxes that hung from the trees during the day wrapped in their bat capes. 

My Nikon D100 captured a flying fox zooming overhead.
We flew on to Tasmania to see what life was like on this island. 

Getting close to kangaroos at Bonarong Wildlife Park near Richmond, Tasmania.
We then flew to New Zealand and traveled to the active volcano known as White Island. Situated 1.5 hours by boat north of the north coast of North Island, this volcano is under private ownership but tours go when the weather is good. What a neat experience! 

Getting close to the edge of the crater one has to be careful not to be overcome by fumes

The toxic lake inside the crater whose mouth is actually below sea level.
Visiting the geothermal areas on North Island was also a priority; this one was near Rotorua. I tried jogging near Rotorua but the sulfur fumes from the surrounding area were so strong I could only run for a maximum of two minutes. 

A geyser
After 12 days we finished our travels and returned safely to Houston.