EurAstro missions 1 August 2008

EurAstro TSE mission to China 2008

This was an ambitious EurAstro journey, comprising sub-groups of participants from across Europe (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands and Spain), ranging from ‘eclipse virgins’ to veteran eclipse scientists. We chose again Eclipse-City as our tour operator - they aren’t cheap but they provide full professional services.

China is a tough country, especially in the Xinjiang autonomous region, thus Eclipse-City had to relocate us in a somewhat less sensitive area of the Gansu province to observe the eclipse, at the expense of further air and bus travel, and extra accommodation. Even there, authorities were omnipresent - for instance, they demanded that we leave the eclipse camp earlier than expected, which compromised deep-sky observation and forced our scientists to pack their stuff in a hurry. Eclipse-City’s manager Federico Avellán Borgmeyer, helped by Xavier Jubier and other staff, appropriately and diligently reacted in such circumstances. That overall situation, though, points away from China as an optimum observation place for the upcoming total solar eclipse of July 22, 2009.

Our first stop was Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, a modern, fast-growing city of 2 million inhabitants with strong Muslim influence. We attended an ethnic show there.

We reached Dunhuang, Gansu, by air and road. Architectural Buddhist masterpieces abound in the region, in particular in a group of grottoes housing gigantic statues. We spotted a lunar-solar symbol, maybe a good omen for the imminent eclipse. Indeed, we were worried by the exceptionally bad weather - cold, windy and rainy - before making for the eclipse camp.

Since the tour’s highlights included camel riding and dune climbing, then going up and down the Great Wall and a nearby fortress in Jiayuguan, Gansu, we were temporarily happy with the relatively cold weather, though.

The weather gradually turned clear and sunny when we arrived at Eclipse-City’s camp near Jinta, Gansu, with only occasional cumulus clouds on eclipse day. The camp comprised tents for sleeping, meeting and preparing scientific experiments (a NASA team was there). Surroundings were quite scenic, with a high, snow-covered mountain range in the distance.

The eclipse itself was a complete success - dark skies around the Sun, with a typical solar minimum corona yet some remarkable prominences; stars (delta Cancri) and planets (Mercury, Venus) around; and lighter horizon with swiftly changing colours. High contrast or near infrared images revealed earthshine. Flash spectra were taken at the beginning and the end of the totality. Polarimetric measurements are under evaluation.

The night sky was superb, allowing for star parties, telescopic observations and wide-field photography. Here some examples: NGC 6231 star cluster in Scorpius (540mm lens); M6 & M7 star clusters and dust clouds (200mm, near infrared); Sagittarius aka Teapot (85mm, deep-sky filter); Milky Way panorama (24mm).

The successful eclipse chasers were welcomed back in Urumqi, where a banquet was served. After some further tourism (here the National Museum with the famous mummies of Turpan and Xiaohe), we were ready to fly back to Europe.


Further eclipse reports:

Prix Eurastro 2008

Piero Soave's eclipse report from Mongolia

TSE 08: Flash spectrum and evaluation