Clouds disappoint but darkness awes during eclipse
At 2:37 p.m. Monday, as hundreds of hopeful faces turned to the sky at a former NASA site in the North Carolina mountains that seemed built for the mission, the moon passed between the sun and Earth -- behind thick, dark clouds.
There would be no Baily’s beads dancing around the sun’s corona, no brilliant diamond ring, no twinkling stars at mid-afternoon, no burned retinas at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Center 30 miles southwest of Asheville.
Instead, an enveloping darkness fell over the hilltop crowd of eclipse viewers so quickly that it drew gasps. People who had hoped for a lifetime experience settled for a weird 8 p.m.-like twilight, the wind gone totally still, that lifted as abruptly as it fell.
From the crowd:
“Isn’t that awesome, sweetheart?”
“It’s so crazy! That’s so weird! It’s like someone just put on a dimmer.”
“Murphy is a jerk,” in reference to the law that says anything that can go wrong will.
Hundreds of eclipse viewers had filed Monday morning into PARI, a science education center 2,800 feet high and six miles up a winding mountain road, where 85-foot radio telescopes don't care if skies turn cloudy.
It's the first time that a total eclipse is known to pass over such a cluster of the instruments, which "see" objects by collecting the electromagnetic radiation, PARI says.
A thousand visitors from many states and countries were expected at a sold-out event that the not-for-profit institute hopes will broaden its public reach.
But as the eclipse began a few minutes after 1 p.m., clouds gathered and darkened overhead, threatening rain after what had been a sunny morning. Thunder sounded briefly.
The crowd turned hopeful at 2:20 p.m., breaking into applause as the sun briefly broke through the clouds -- a slender orange crescent -- before disappearing again two minutes later. The sun flirted with the crowd in several more brief reveals through the afternoon.
Some spectators stared instead at NASA.gov as it projected perfect eclipse images from Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Others headed down the hill, toward home, by 2:15 p.m.
Still, science got done despite the clouds.
PARI’s radio telescopes were to measure the brightness temperature of the sun’s corona, its outer atmosphere, as a function of distance from its surface, possibly detecting evidence of neutral hydrogen in the corona.
NASA deployed its AEROKATS (Advancing Earth Research Observations with Kites and Terrestrial Sensors) technology, which flies kites that suspend cameras that scan the ground. Monday's mission was to record the temperatures of the atmosphere during the eclipse.
And students from Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory released a balloon that was expected to soar to 90,000 to 100,000 feet carrying a payload that live-streamed the eclipse.
“We’re above the clouds, so (the project) is fine,” said team leader Doug Knight, who teaches physics and engineering. “This is real-world problem solving for the students. The rest of it, we can’t do anything about.”
SylvanSport, a Brevard company that makes compact pull-behind campers, convened 70 of its buyers for a four-day Camp Dark Sky in Hendersonville. The most distant of those buyers came from Arizona, but others traveled from the Midwest, mid-Atlantic states and Florida.
“This became a bullet-list item for me, when I first heard about it a year ago. I’m just a science nerd,” said camper Ken Douglas, a lighting designer from Bloomfield, N.J., who traveled with his wife and two kids to see his first eclipse.
“I’m hoping to see a (sun’s) corona,” Douglas said.
“I’m just hoping to see an eclipse,” his son Ben added as clouds gathered.
Forty-nine amateur astronomers from Italy, clad in red Associazione Astrofili Bolognesi T-shirts, were among the eclipse chasers ready to set up telescopes. The group has already visited New Orleans and other cities, but the eclipse was their clear focus.
"I'm very excited," said a group member who gave her name only as Carla. "The eclipse is a spiritual phenomenon, and it's worth traveling so far for."
That blend of science and awe is part of the allure of eclipses, say two Davidson College physics students who interned at PARI this summer.
Junior Sam Frederick decided to be a scientist after reading the late astronomer Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" a few years ago, and views his future career as benefiting humanity. The more scientific literate he becomes, the humbler he feels.
The eclipse, Frederick said, "is sort of both a personal, spiritual event and deeply connected to how I understand science is so deeply rooted to humanity. (Scientists) give life to the curiosity and to the human need to understand the universe."
Davidson student Meg Houck, a sophomore, said it's been all hands on deck as PARI prepared for the eclipse.
"An eclipse doesn't require that you know anything about it," she said. "It's like when you go into a great cathedral and there's this collective awe."
PARI, created in 1998, offers hands-on educational and research for science, technology, engineering and math student. The 200-acre campus, 135 miles west of Charlotte, was first developed by NASA in 1962 to track satellites and manned space flights.
The site still has two 85-foot radio telescopes, 11 optical telescopes and two smaller radio telescopes -- one painted with a smiley face aimed at Cold War-era Soviet spy satellites.