Annular Solar eclipse of June 21 was a special celestial alignment which was a “not to be missed” event. The eclipse was a rare type where the Moon was almost the same size as Sun and hence the annularity would be observed from a small central location. This also opened up a pandora’s box for research grade observation and data collection. Due to its rare nature the set up was a challenge. Due to shorter duration of the eclipse, the challenges increased many folds.
We started preparing for this eclipse about a year ago. We started early for more than one reasons, not relevant here. The first and foremost thing to identify was a location suitable for observation. This became tricky as the eclipse was occurring during the beginning of Monsoon in north India. Rajasthan being a dry state made it easy to find a spot. Another parameter to find a good location was to stay close to central line. The narrow path of only 22 KM width for this eclipse made it important to be close to central line. After closely examining all the parameters, Suratgarh in Ganganagar district of Rajasthan was chosen. The monsoon arrives late and due to dry nature of state, chances of monsoon affecting the eclipse observation was rare. Now since the location was identified, search for hotel and other facilities were easy to identify.
The next step was to choose the set up for photography and observation. This was not so difficult as the experience from the Annular Solar Eclipse of December 2019 as observed in Kerala helped us in my planning. The set up was practised before and during the December eclipse and even after that so that the system works perfectly. Another challenge was that the eclipse was happening during the day of summer solstice which means the Sun would be almost overhead at the location. This makes the photography of eclipse very tricky since cameras and telescopes have blind spots that high.
While things were going smooth, India got struck by the COVID-19 pandemic and whole event was diminishing in front of us. The situation was changing on a daily basis where the number of cases were increasing day by day and the state and central government were doing everything they can to control the situation. We had a sigh of relief when the country entered the “Unlock-1” phase where things will starts to unlock which made me believe this trip could be possible.
We started the journey 3 days before the eclipse on June 18th so that we can reach our destination soothly in case there are issues on the road. Luckily for us, the travel was smooth. The roads are great and the journey took us a little over 8 hours, crossing 3 state borders. We arrived the destination a little after lunch and started setting up our equipment in the evening. Next day we completed our set up and started testing and running trials on our set up to ensure nothing goes wrong. The sky was clear and it was a morale boosting episode.
Our set up: we had placed 4 cameras to capture the eclipse. Cameras and telescope took the centerstage during the eclipse observation. We had also placed a giant binocular for visual observation along with some solar eclipse goggles. We had also planned to do live webcast of the event so that our students and other people who could not travel due to the COVID-19 situation can watch the event online.
On the day of the eclipse we all gathered at the observation deck at 8 am. We immediately jumped to our station and did one final check and prepared the set up by 9:30 am. The focus on the camera were set, power up and checking. The imaging started at 10:10 am and the cameras continuously started clicking the images of the eclipse. For next 1 hour 38 minutes the cameras were capturing the movement of the Moon in front of the Sun where the Moon was hiding the Sun behind it. Around 11:30am we noticed the weather is getting pleasant and the light is dimming. Our first reaction was if the clouds have rolled in and I looked up in the sky only to find the sky was clear. The sky brightness reduced due to the reduced sunlight and it reminded me of the total eclipse I observed in the US in August 2017 which showed the similar pattern. I was puzzled now if my cameras can capture the annular eclipse or shall I remove the filter. I decided to remove the filter and with 10 seconds to annularity at 11:52 am I removed the filters. The sky had dimmed to a point where it was looking like the sunrise in the morning. The shadows was sharp and we could feel the cold air instead of the hot air we had experienced all through the trip. It was a sigh of relief for us.
The annularity was for a short duration (about 30 sec) and I immediately put the filters back so that the camera can continue to take images. We were absolutely speechless of this experience and thrilled to realise what we achieved. There was a moment of joy seeing the Ring of fire in the sky which we never experienced before. The goosebumps we experienced was like never before. It was a successful observation and an experience of the lifetime. The annularity was over but the eclipse was still going to go for another 93 minutes and we collected ourself and focused on the work which was still to be done. But internally we were all smiling as a year long effort was completed with success. Hard work paid off and now we achieved something that was looking very grim in recent months.
Our team received global media coverage with AFP, ABP news and many local news papers. After the eclipse, we celebrated the success with good lunch, packed our equipment and dispersed to our home. Some of the media coverage for eclipse are listed in our Media & Press section.
All in all it was a wonderful experience for all the astrophilers and we had a great time observing this celestial alignment.