Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pan-STARRS podcast

If you didn't catch the HPR interview with Nick Kaiser, you can listen to it as a podcast:

Scientists Search for Killer Asteroids
Last week a University of Hawaii astronomer predicted an asteroid – that he found several years ago - will likely miss Earth. These days, finding killer asteroids is a highly inefficient process. But UH researchers are building a one of a kind telescope array to do just that. There are still some bugs to work out, but as HPR's Ben Markus reports it'll do much more than just find apocalyptic asteroids.

Runs: 2:25
AIRED: Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hawaii Eclipse Adventure

by Beverly Lynn-Wilson
Member of the Friends of the Institute for Astronomy

The next solar eclipse takes place on July 11, 2010, across a swath of the South Pacific. This piece commemorates another July 11 eclipse, visible from the Big Island and the east end of Maui in 1991.

While we set up camp in a remote area of Maui, my college-aged daughter, Debbie, and I tried to block out a man blasting his off-key voice and miss-strummed guitar notes through an elaborate sound system. Along with a few hundred other people on the evening of July 10, 1991, we’d come to a temporary campground to witness a rare total eclipse of the Sun to take place soon after sunrise the next morning.

High up on a bluff overlooking a black sand beach and crashing waves, we were in the eclipse totality zone on a tiny strip along the southeastern edge of the island in a remote area called Kaupo. If you’re looking toward the ocean when you drive through Kaupo, you miss downtown’s single building, a picturesque general store that is open only three hours a day. You don’t want to miss downtown, though, when it’s been so much trouble to get to Kaupo. Although it’s only fifty miles from Kihei, where my parents lived, the trip takes two hours and is best made in a four-wheel drive vehicle. The last thirty miles are narrow, winding, and full of potholes in which you could easily lose a small child. Cattle have the right-of-way on this road and often take it.

Debbie and I moved gear up to the front seat of our Explorer and made up a bed in the back. We chatted with other campers while standing in line at portable johns. The big excitement of the evening was watching the police try to find more gas for their floodlight generator. The rock star never-gonna-be eventually turned down his amplifiers and croaked out some softer tunes.

Debbie and I admired our view of the stars and set the travel clock alarm so that we would be sure to wake up in plenty of time to witness the event. Eclipses of the Sun occur every year or two, but the totality zone is narrow and usually goes through the middle of an ocean or some remote mountain or desert.

Seeing a partial eclipse simply isn’t the same; you can go about your normal activities without ever realizing one is happening. Total eclipses are dramatic and awe inspiring, so I’d been told by those who had seen one. Debbie and I went to sleep in great anticipation of tomorrow’s celestial event.

We woke up at 2:30 a.m. when rain blew in the windows and onto our faces. But we went back to sleep, sure that this was one of those night showers common to many areas of Maui. After all, it never rains in Kaupo in July. It may rain a few miles away, but this is always where the rain stops and beautiful rainbows arch across the sky.

We awoke at first light to visions of dense gray clouds as far as we could see in all directions. The Sun must be up, but where was it? We got out the compass to determine where it should be. It wasn’t there—or anywhere else. Maui, the Sun god, apparently had left for Cabo San Lucas.

Debbie and I got breakfast out of the cooler and ate sitting in the bed in the back of the car. The rain seemed to be letting up. Maybe this would clear in the next hour.

When the appointed time arrived for the beginning of the eclipse, we searched for a break in the clouds but saw only a new gray wall moving in off the ocean. Then about 7:15 it got noticeably darker. Those of us left at the campground—dozens had already departed—got out of our cars to have a clear view, in case we could see anything. Two dogs who had been sitting on the ground beside a truck climbed into it and went to sleep.

I shot photos of clouds in all directions while my light meter steadily plunged. I knew when totality arrived because the light meter no longer registered, even with the lens wide open. It wasn’t dark like night but more like immediately after sunset, before the sky turns black.

In a minute it was light again. Totality was over. Debbie and I packed up and joined a three-mile line of cars doing fifteen to twenty miles an hour in the rain. (In good weather you’re lucky to get up to twenty-five miles an hour on the straight stretches.) No one honked or cursed or squealed tires. We were part of a huge, silent snake winding across the open slopes of Haleakala volcano, pausing occasionally until cows decided to amble off the road.

We finally reached Kula, where we should have had a view of most of Maui and three other islands. Nothing but gray—no islands, no West Maui Mountains, no valley, no coastline, no top of Haleakala. Only one big gray cloud.

Debbie and I told each other that when we got home to Kihei, we could watch the live television coverage that my parents were taping. Reporters were watching the eclipse from the totality zone on the Big Island. And we did exactly that, right up until the tape ended shortly after totality started. The electricity in Kihei had gone off due to the rain, and the recording had stopped. The power didn’t come back on until after the eclipse was over.

My brother and his family, who had gone to the Big Island to watch the eclipse, would be flying back to Maui later in the day. Don had consulted numerous experts about the best place to see the phenomenon. This evening we could watch his video. We thought.

“This black cloud moved over the Sun right before totality and didn’t move off until totality was over,” Don said. “The only people who saw the eclipse were ones lying around the pool at our hotel in Kona—and they didn’t even know what was going on.”

The weather service people expressed surprise at such unseasonal weather. They apparently consulted only scientific instruments, instead of Pele, the volcano goddess. Since she is extremely jealous of Sun worshippers, it might have been prudent to ask about her plans for the day.

The next day my father, Debbie, and I took a helicopter trip around East Maui. We had a clear view of where we had camped—with the Sun shining down on it. We picked up my printed eclipse photos on the way home. The set included the widest range of gray shades that have ever been photographed.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Flat Stanley’s Eclipse Trip

By Beverly Lynn-Wilson
Member of the Friends of the Institute for Astronomy

This report about the July 22 eclipse is especially for elementary students and teachers. You already know who Flat Stanley is. For the rest of you, he’s a storybook character who got smashed flat by a bulletin board. On the way to study the eclipse on Enewetak, the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy eclipse team met a second grade teacher from Oregon at the hotel on Majuro, our first stop in the Marshall Islands. (Please see entries below for descriptions of the trip and the eclipse.)

The teacher asked us to take a paper Flat Stanley with us to Enewetak and send her a report about Flat Stanley’s eclipse experience to share with her class. The following describes what Flat Stanley saw and did while he traveled with us.

A group of eighteen scientists and amateur astronomers traveled from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. We wanted to study the Sun during the total eclipse on July 22. An eclipse happens when the Sun, Moon, and Earth are lined up just right, and the Moon covers up the entire Sun. Then it gets dark, and you can see the Sun’s atmosphere, called the corona. It looks like a white lion’s mane. (The Earth has an atmosphere, too. It’s the air all around us.)

During an eclipse the Moon blocks the bright light coming from the Sun, the sky gets dark, and you can see the Sun's atmosphere.

An atoll is a ring of tiny coral islands surrounding a lagoon. A lagoon is a seawater lake. It is really part of the ocean, but it has only small waves because it is protected by the islands around it. Some of the islands are large enough for people to live on, and some are not. The name Enewetak includes all the islands that make up the atoll. It is also the name of the largest island, where everyone in Enewetak lives.

Flat Stanley enjoyed swimming with us in the lagoon.

Most of the people in our group work with the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy. Not all of us live in Hawaii, though. Our group included people from other states, as well as people from Germany, Wales, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Nearly everyone spoke more than one language, so we could all talk to one another.

You have to be in just the right place to see a total eclipse. Usually the place is hard to get to. If Flat Stanley had come with our group, first he would have had to fly about five hours from Oregon to Honolulu, Hawaii. That is about the time between lunch and dinner. Then Flat Stanley would have spent the night at a hotel in Honolulu. Early the next morning, way before breakfast, Flat Stanley would have boarded another airplane and flown with our group another five hours to Majuro. Majuro Atoll is the capital of the Marshall Islands. We met the teacher from Oregon and Flat Stanley at our hotel there.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands, the country’s whole name, is across the international dateline. That means we left Honolulu on a Wednesday, but it was Thursday when we got to Majuro only five hours later. That is like going to school on a Wednesday morning and when you come back to your classroom after lunch, it is Thursday. When we returned to Honolulu, we left Majuro on a Monday night and landed in Honolulu on Sunday night, so we had two Mondays that week. Isn’t that weird?

Flat Stanley flew with us in a little airplane with two propellers for over three hours to get to Enewetak. This was the best place in the world to see the eclipse. The scientists wanted to learn more about the corona, and during an eclipse is the best time to study it. Most of what scientists have already learned has surprised them and raised more questions. (One of the most common things astronomers say is, “We didn’t expect to find that.” That is how science usually works. You get a surprising answer to one question, and then you have more questions.)

Flat Stanley and the eclipse team flew to Enewetak in this airplane.

The Sun affects our lives, and the lives of all creatures and plants on Earth, every day. Can you think of ways the Sun plays a part in your daily life? The Sun also affects astronauts and all the satellites we have circling the Earth. We need to learn all we can about the Sun and its corona. For example, we need to know more about how the Sun influences weather, here on Earth and out in space where astronauts go.

Flat Stanley helped Dr. Huw Morgan analyze the information from his experiments during the eclipse.

Flat Stanley and the amateur astronomers in our group wanted to see the eclipse. This was the first total eclipse of the Sun I ever saw. It is hard for me to think of a more awesome, spectacular, strange, and beautiful event. It was way better than watching TV. I hope I get to see many more. So does Flat Stanley. (Please see entries below for a complete description of the eclipse and photos.)

Right before and right after the Moon completely covers the Sun, Flat Stanley saw what is called the diamond ring. (Photo by Dr. Isabelle Scholl.)

The weather on Enewetak was about 95 to 100 degrees every day. One day it was 108. It was extremely humid. That means that everything always felt wet. It also rained at least once every day, usually only for ten or twenty minutes at a time. We carried Flat Stanley around in a plastic bag to keep him dry. Sometimes we took him out of the bag, but then he rolled up and became Curly Stanley.

Enewetak is different from any other place I have been. It has no stores, no restaurants, no post office, no money machines, no doctor’s office. The nearest McDonald’s is thousands of miles away. (There is not even one on Majuro.) Enewetak has no phones or faxes, no Internet, no video games, no TVs. It has only one road. You can walk across the whole island in about thirty or forty minutes.

We lived in two buildings that had bedrooms, bathrooms, a workroom, a kitchen, and a washer and dryer. An extremely loud generator provided power to run our scientific instruments, lights, and appliances. We brought a cook and our own food with us from Majuro. We could not decide whether we liked the pineapple cake or the carrot cookies best. Flat Stanley voted for the cookies.

Flat Stanley lived and worked with the eclipse team in this building.

Most of the time we were working. It took a long time to set up our instruments, get them adjusted correctly, and practice the experiments we wanted to do during the eclipse. But we also took time to read books, go swimming in the warm lagoon, toss a Frisbee, play with sand and hermit crabs, and watch lovely sunrises and sunsets. One evening we had a fly-swatting contest. The flies did not bite, but they were always buzzing around. We also had cockroaches, termites, and mosquitoes.

About 250 people live on Enewetak. They raise pigs and chickens for food, and they go fishing. Children go to elementary school on the island, but they have to go to Majuro for high school or college. Many of the people speak both Marshallese and English. They are very friendly. Nearly everyone came to greet us when our plane landed. They placed leis (flower necklaces) around our necks and gave us cold coconuts. A man with a large knife cut the tops off the coconuts so that we could drink the sweet, clear juice. It really tasted good on such a hot day.

To have fun learning about the Sun and planets, go to the I Was Wondering site. You can ask questions there, too.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field in 3D

Recently, an animation of a fly through of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field in 3D has been posted on YouTube.
The animation was computed using the measured redshifts of all 10,000 galaxies in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image and has accompanying narration and background musical score.
That animation and many others have been produced by Dr. Michael R. Gallis [Penn State Schuylkill] and the
Animations for Physics and Astronomy Project. Astronomy sequences include retrograde motion of the planets, eclipes, and Kepler's Laws. Animations for mechanics, vectors, optics, waves and other phenomena are also on view. I especially enjoyed the fractals in the miscellaneous section.
The Project now has its very own YouTube Channel.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Aug 19: The Sun, the Stars and the IfA


The Sun, the Stars and the IfA

by IfA Director Dr. Rolf Peter Kudritzki

IfA Auditorium - Manoa

7:00 pm August 19, 2009


2009 is an extraordinary year! Four hundred years after the first scientific study of the sky with a telescope by Galileo, a cultural and scientific milestone, which changed the thinking of humans in a fundamental way- two new revolutionary telescope projects will move forward in Hawaii, the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) on Haleakala and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea. The talk will inform about the two projects and their key science goals. It will also describe the science which will occur with the TMT.



Free parking readily available in the IfA parking lot
at 2680 Woodlawn Drive.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Visions of the Universe: 4 centuries of Discovery

The Hawaii Library Association
invites you to a special viewing of
Visions of the Universe: 4 centuries of Discovery

In celebration of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, this exhibit features major astronomical discoveries highlighting the 400 years since Galileo turned his telescope to the heavens in 1609. Hickam AFB Library is one of only 40 libraries nationwide selected to host this important traveling exhibit.

WHERE: Hickam AFB Library, 990 Mills Blvd., Building 595
DATE: Saturday, Aug 29, 2009
TIME: 10-12 noon
WHO: HLA, SLA, IfA, friends and family
COST: Free
REGISTER: Amy Nogami
(Amy.Nogami@us.army.mil or 655-9269)

> NO pass - NO entry <

Send the following info by Aug 14 to
Phyllis.Frenzel@hickam.af.mil or call Phyllis @ 449-8289 with

If you miss this special viewing, there will be a general public viewing September 4 and 5, from 10 AM-6 PM. But, SECURITY PASSES must be requested from Phyllis Frenzel early enough to be received by return mail.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Eclipse Team’s Life on Enewetak

by Beverly Lynn-Wilson
Member of the Friends of the Institute for Astronomy

The Institute for Astronomy (IfA) eclipse team, officially known as the Solar Wind Sherpas, spent a week on Enewetak, in the Marshall Islands, to study the eclipse. (Please see entries below for descriptions of the eclipse, the science, and our trip.) Here are some snapshots of our activities on Enewetak:

Meals were a highlight of the day. The nutritionist at the Wellness Center in the hospital on Majuro planned our meals and sent along one of his cooks, Joni Lang. She served us gourmet dishes of chicken, fresh vegetables, tofu, pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches on homemade bread, salad, beans, and tuna caught by local residents. Oranges, brown rice, peanut butter, nuts, raisins, tahini dressing, and honey were available at most meals. We drank bottled water and fruit juice. Most of the meat and some of our other food shipped on the boat never reached us.

Cook Joni Lang served us delicious meals. Favorites were a pineapple cake and carrot cookies (so good several asked for the recipe).

European team members agreed that melted cheese is a dietary essential but failed to grasp the love affair Americans have with peanut butter. (Although some Americans talked about giving up peanut butter for a while after eating it three times a day on this trip.)

Our chief engineer, Judd Johnson, re-engineered the coffee machine at our first breakfast. He found a coffee-maker, but it had no carafe or filters. A carafe was essential to release a mechanism that let the coffee drip through. Judd taped the mechanism into position, used a paper towel as a filter, and dripped the coffee into a saucepan. Some team members had brought instant coffee or coffee bags (like tea bags) so that they wouldn’t be caught in the unthinkable circumstance of having no coffee to drink.

Each of us washed our foam plates and plasticware to reuse them and reduce the amount of trash we created.

Five of us survived (well, sort of) a two-hour boat trip across the huge lagoon and back to visit the islet of Runit, where the radiation from the 1940s and 1950s atomic testing was buried after the U.S. cleaned up Enewetak in 1979. The small fishing boat had fish guts floating in the bottom and no real seats. We zigged and zagged between underwater rocks, and twice heard the sickening sound of the outboard motor prop hitting those rocks, fortunately with no major damage. We fried in the sun and got drenched by waves and a squall. As we slammed into swells, I kept my tongue behind my teeth so that I wouldn’t accidentally bite it. The foot and hand cramps from bracing so hard cleared up soon after the trip was over. For the next day or two, though, we wanted to sit on something soft.

The fishing boat we took to Runit, the small one in front, was docked at the beach where many of us swam every day.

While we were on Runit, we checked constantly with Judd as he measured radiation. He found barely more than the usual background radiation. We hiked up a concrete dome that is 9 meters (29 feet) high and 115 meters (374 feet) wide, under which the radioactive materials from the atomic testing are buried in a crater left by one of the bomb blasts. The half-life of the plutonium buried there is 24,000 years.
Most of the vegetation near the dome is dead; the other part of Runit is green. Dozens of birds live here.

The rest of the team took the trip the next day in a larger boat. They were only fried by the intense sun. Even frequent applications of sunblock can’t provide complete protection in this place 11 degrees above the equator.

We swam in the lagoon’s warm, clear water and played Frisbee. One evening we had a fly-swatting contest in the workroom. Dr. Martina Arndt won, with over 50 to her credit.

This shows our sleeping and workroom with some of the equipment packed up after the eclipse.

Grad student Emily Mount taught local children how to play Frisbee--and how to get a Frisbee off a roof.

Many activities that we consider a normal part of everyday life weren’t available to us. Enewetak has no stores, no ATMs, no post office, no high school, no hospital or clinic. It has no phones or faxes, no TV, no Internet. Our group had a satellite phone for emergencies.

Each Enewetak family has a feezer in this warehouse.

Locals raise pigs for food. Before a plane lands, police drive around asking people to get their pigs off the runway and into their pens.

This is a typical scene. The island also has many concrete buildings.

Shortly after arriving I appointed myself plumbing czar and spent a portion of most days dealing with cleanliness and malfunction issues. The second big excitement of eclipse day happened when Dr. Isabelle Scholl walked into the dorm at bedtime. Water was pouring out from her room into the hallway. The toilet tank in her room—the same tank that hadn’t managed to fill automatically for days because the pump malfunctioned—had overflowed. She shut off the water valve and I helped her move her air mattress and personal items into my room. (Her room contained only two thin mats instead of a wooden bed with a standard mattress that other rooms had, so Isabelle used one of the air mattresses we had brought.) European team member Peter Aniol went in search of the maintenance man, since the water was now seeping into his room.

Most of us slept indoors in a room like this, but a few chose to sleep in small tents erected where they had great views of both the lagoon and the ocean.

We gave up expecting anything to be thoroughly dry. The room air-conditioners helped somewhat, but with daily squalls and drizzles and otherwise constant high humidity, everything remained damp. Tossing clothes and towels into the dryer helped for only minutes or hours. I stored my paperback books upright between a wall and a suitcase. Otherwise, the covers curled into tubes.

We accepted the ear-splitting noise of the large generator, because that was the only thing that kept the air-conditioners, scientific instruments, and kitchen appliances running.

We admired the beautiful turquoise, teal, and royal blue colors of the lagoon. We saw rainbows daily. We watched lovely sunrises and sunsets, enjoying the coolness of those times—meaning that the temperature had dropped into the 80s.

Grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation funded this solar research.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Eclipse Team’s Life on Majuro

by Beverly Lynn-Wilson
Member of the Friends of the Institute for Astronomy

The Institute for Astronomy (IfA) eclipse team, officially known as the Solar Wind Sherpas, spent a few days on Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, on either side of our visit to Enewetak to study the eclipse. (Please see entries below for descriptions of the eclipse, the science, and our trip.) Here are some snapshots of our activities on Majuro:

Legs out and arms up, we sailed off a slide into the clear, warm water of the Majuro lagoon—and hoped we wouldn't crash into the person holding the slide’s unanchored and wobbly front posts.

Tiny islets ring Majuro's lagoon. The eclipse team visited two of them for swimming, snorkeling, and tubing.

We snorkeled over beautiful coral and hundreds of colorful fish.

After all the non-stop work we were ready for some relaxation on a couple of afternoons.

We were quite sure our arms were longer after going tubing. A boat pulled two of us lying on a circular rubber raft attached to a long tow line. The raft charges in and out of the boat’s wake as the boat turns and bangs against swells. Riders hang onto two handles but have no control over the raft. This was my first ride, and I frequently had the sensation that I would fly off into space or crash on top of my raft mate, but I managed to stay on the raft for the entire ride. At the end of the ride I slid off the raft and gave a huge grin and a thumbs-up.

We shopped along the island’s main—and only—road, checking out small stores for local handicrafts and purchasing snacks at a well-stocked supermarket. Friendly locals greeted us wherever we walked. When we tired of walking, we took a cab for $1 per person no matter where we were going, although that rate seemed flexible and the cabs had no meters. The nearest McDonald’s and Starbucks are thousands of miles away.

This is a typical scene of central Majuro.

We were intrigued by a combination beauty salon and auto parts store.

One evening on our way to dinner in the hotel restaurant, we heard a noise like a power saw ripping through metal. Some men were butchering a pig, the source of the screams, outside the kitchen door.

We sprawled on a lobby couch or restaurant chair, waiting for an incredibly slow Internet connection over the hotel’s wi-fi service. Team member Mindy Lekberg thought the hotel’s 14-cents-per-minute computer might be faster. It cost her over $3 to send a short e-mail.

We took cold showers our last couple of days on Majuro because drought rules were in effect, and we had only cold water for four hours in the morning and three hours in the evening. The cold was not an entirely unwelcome sensation (except for washing hair) after boiling in hundred-degree temperatures on Enewetak and forgetting what cold felt like.

We discovered the joys of playing with hermit crabs. They housed themselves in a variety of beautiful shells.

Yes, playing with hermit crabs really can be entertaining to a bunch of curious scientists.

We commented on the poverty and trash when we arrived and marveled at how wealthy and clean Majuro looked when we returned from Enewetak.

Grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation funded the solar research.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Eclipse Trip

by Beverly Lynn-Wilson
Member of the Friends of the Institute for Astronomy

Total solar eclipses take place every one to three years but rarely in places convenient to get to. The July 22 eclipse was supposed to be visible over the Shanghai area of China, but most people there didn’t see it due to clouds, rain, and air pollution. The Institute for Astronomy (IfA) team, led by Dr. Shadia Habbal, chose to go to Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where there was a better chance of good weather. Getting there, and back, was an adventure.

On Wednesday, July 15, the IfA team of 11 met a European contingent of seven at Honolulu International at 5:00 a.m. for a Continental flight to Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. Some of our gear had been shipped ahead, but we carried the essential scientific equipment with us. The scientists would lose an entire year of preparation for collecting data about the Sun’s atmosphere if this equipment didn’t make it to the observing site. This meant careful supervision of the equipment during tagging and security checks, plus visual observation of the cases and bags being loaded onto the plane. No one really cared about personal luggage. The eclipse certainly wouldn’t care what we were wearing or how we looked.

After a five-hour flight, we landed in Majuro on Thursday and trooped down metal stairs onto the tarmac. The country is across the dateline, so it was the next day and two hours earlier local time. (Noon on Wednesday in Honolulu is 10:00 a.m. on Thursday in the Marshall Islands.) Team member Dr. Huw Morgan had already made friends with the co-pilot, and the two of them made sure all our equipment was unloaded before the plane took off for another island nation.

An ancient bus, with small suitcases and carry-on bags piled floor to ceiling behind the driver, delivered us to the Marshall Islands Resort. We calculated that if the driver stopped suddenly, the luggage would fall onto him, not us. Most things in our rooms worked, the pillow was decorated with flowers and a shell necklace, and balconies overlooked the lagoon. The hotel restaurant served good food, as did a couple of other restaurants.

We looked back on the Marshall Islands Resort as we boated across the lagoon.

Getting to Enewetak was the real challenge. Plan A was to fly on the Air Marshall Islands Dash-8, a small prop plane. The Marshallese call this airline Air Maybe. The plane had recently experienced a major mechanical problem that required shipping the engine to the U.S. mainland for repair, so we were never sure we would make it to Enewetak until we landed there. We knew the engine was shipped out on the Continental flight two days before we left Honolulu, so we were hopeful. We were more hopeful for a Saturday departure after the plane passed the test flight on Friday afternoon.

The original Plan B was to take the boat, a 44-hour trip. However, at the last minute the boat company informed Shadia that the boat was leaving for Enewetak on July 13. A chief had died in Kona about a month before (more Enewetakians live on the Big Island than on Enewetak), but now it was essential to return his body to Enewetak as speedily as possible. The boat wouldn’t wait for us, and we couldn’t possibly get to Majuro by the 13th. Scratch Plan B.

Plan C was to enlist the help of the U.S. military, which has a base on Kwajalein Atoll. Shadia located the name of the officer to contact, but he replied that the military couldn’t help due to concerns about the runway and other risks. The motto below his signature said “Attitude is everything.” Scratch Plan C.

So we showed up at the Majuro airport Saturday morning before 5:30 a.m. and boarded the Dash-8 after no ID or security checks. We stopped briefly in Kwajalein to take on more fuel and landed on Enewetak about four hours after leaving Majuro. The runway showed signs of having been paved once. It had no lights or tower, not even a windsock.

We landed on this runway on Enewetak Atoll.

Much of the Enewetak community of about 250 people turned out to greet us with lei and chilled coconuts with the tops lopped off so that we could drink the sweet, clear liquid. The police chief supervised the unloading of our baggage into pickup trucks. The assistant mayor gave a welcoming speech. (The mayor was on Majuro.) We boarded a colorful jitney to drive down the runway and along the atoll’s only road, which had pavement here and there, to the Lawrence Livermore Radiological Laboratory facilities, where we stayed.

The Enewetak community greeted us as we deplaned from the Dash-8.

We stood in front of the airport terminal drinking from coconuts.

This jitney carted us and our luggage around the island.

Enewetak was the site of U.S. nuclear testing in the 1940s and 1950s. The U.S. cleaned up the atoll in 1979, but radiation level monitoring continues. Eclipse team member Judd Johnson constantly monitored our exposure and found little more than the usual background radiation.

This building contained a kitchen, laundry facilities, bathrooms, and a workroom with half a dozen beds spread around the periphery.

This dormitory contained single and double rooms and bathrooms.

On Monday morning we spent a couple of hours sitting on the airport terminal lanai, with temperatures just below 100 and periodic rain, waiting for the plane to arrive with more food for us. We didn’t go inside the tiny terminal because an anthropologist from Montana State and two of his students were living there for the summer. The plane never arrived. It had taken off but developed an oil leak and returned to Majuro. Now that we were here, we wondered if we would ever get off this atoll.

Although we still didn’t know if the plane would show up the following Saturday to take us back to Majuro, we checked in for the flight on Friday afternoon, using the floor of our workroom as a ticket counter. We weighed ourselves and our carry-on bags, wrote our names and the weights in a notebook, placed our handwritten ticket in a pile on the floor, checked off our names in the book, and took a tag to attach to bags to be loaded into the plane's baggage compartment. The tag was so short that we could barely get it stapled around handles, and we had to tape it to some containers.

On Saturday morning the assistant mayor received word via radio that the plane had taken off from Majuro. Estimated arrival time was 10:45 to 11:15. We loaded up luggage and ourselves in the rain and took off for the airport. The plane touched down at 11:18, the next best sight after the eclipse.

Whether the plane could take off was debatable. Shadia had purchased every seat on the plane so that we could transport our heavy equipment without topping the weight limit. We left some items in Majuro that we deemed non-essential, because we were over the stated weight limit.

After our group dashed through the rain to board the plane, local residents proceeded to board, filling every seat, including the jumpseat in the cockpit, with a couple of people left standing in the aisle. Judd, who is a pilot himself, had a lengthy discussion with the plane’s captain. Finally, two people got off the plane, and—with great hope that the weight numbers showing that we were just at maximum gross weren’t fudged too much—we managed to lift off in the downpour and not plunge into the ocean at the end of the runway.

We landed in Majuro in pouring rain and were given umbrellas at the bottom of the stairs. By the time we got to the terminal, we were drenched anyway, whether from rain or sweat from the mid-day heat we weren’t sure.

The rain was good for Majuro, though. The major source of fresh water is the runoff from the runway that goes into a catchment system. When we returned to the Marshall Islands Resort, we found out that drought rules were in place. We had water for four hours in the morning and three hours in the evening, all of it cold.

We left for home on the Continental flight on Monday, July 27 (Sunday, July 26, in Honolulu). Check-in took an hour and a half, since all checked luggage was searched by hand. The person at the ticket counter checked our passports, but we didn’t need to show a ticket or flight information. There was only one plane leaving that evening. We arrived in Honolulu at 2:30 a.m., ready to begin our second Monday this week.

Grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation funded the solar research done on this trip.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Science Conducted by the Institute for Astronomy Eclipse Team

by Beverly Lynn-Wilson
Member of the Friends of the Institute for Astronomy

The Sun is so powerfully bright that the best time to study details of the Sun’s atmosphere—especially the part of the atmosphere closest to the Sun—is during a total eclipse, when the Moon blocks the intense sunlight. We know remarkably little about this nuclear reactor that makes life possible on Earth. Particles streaming out from the Sun can disrupt communications and GPS devices here on Earth, cause power surges, and put astronauts at risk. The more we learn, the more we can ameliorate these disruptions and risks.

Scientists generally begin planning for the next eclipse immediately after the previous one is over. Deciding what to study and determining the equipment needed to do the studies—and remember that all the equipment needs to be transportable to the viewing site—is time-consuming. All experiments must proceed flawlessly, since scientists have only minutes to acquire the data they need to do their research.

The eclipse on July 22 was the longest one this century. On Enewetak, an atoll in the Marshall Islands, we had five minutes and forty seconds of totality. However, only about 50% to 70% of the data are good because clouds moved across the Sun in the middle of totality. What data we did get will take weeks or months to analyze. Added to data collected during previous and future eclipses, scientists are slowly filling in missing pieces of the puzzle that is the Sun’s atmosphere.

Data collected during this eclipse primarily concerned looking at ionizations of iron and helium, taking spectra, and obtaining infrared data. Technology has only recently become advanced enough to study the corona in infrared, so we have very little data so far in that area. (Watch the IfA website for an announcement about team leader Dr. Shadia Habbal’s public talk, currently scheduled for early November, when some data analysis will have been done.)

The weeks before the eclipse trip involved non-stop equipment maintenance and calibration, the writing and refinement of observing programs, and the writing of scripts for equipment operators to follow. A few days before leaving we held a dress rehearsal. We set up the main observing tent in the IfA courtyard, moved in all the equipment, and then figured out how six people could run instruments and computers without tripping over one another or the tripods and cords—and without jiggling any of the instruments. Jiggle is the absolute enemy for obtaining good data.

The observing tents were off-the-shelf camping models modified by team engineer Judd Johnson for observing needs. In the larger tent he installed a clear plastic roof window using a zipper made for Jeep windows. He also made an opening to hold an air-conditioner, plus some other modifications that he managed to do on a standard sewing machine. Tripods with single mounts holding up to three instruments were lined up along the roof window.

IfA Eclipse Team

Team members, officially known as the Solar Wind Sherpas, posed by the main observing tent. Standing: Judd Johnson (left), Dr. Shadia Habbal, Dr. Adalbert Ding, Dr. Martina Arndt, Mindy Lekberg, Joni Lang (cook). Seated: Dr. Huw Morgan, Dr. Isabelle Scholl, Emily Mount, Bev Lynn-Wilson, Dr. Dave Harrington, Sarah Jaeggli.

The instrument filters required a constant temperature of 45C. They were inserted into protective housings, and the main use of the air-conditioner was to keep the filters at the temperature they needed. IfA grad student Sarah Jaeggli and post-doc Dave Harrington observed from the smaller tent, also with a viewing window installed. Sarah’s instruments didn’t require a constant temperature, so Sarah and Dave worked in the heat, about 100F in the outside shade for most of the daylight hours and hotter inside the tent.

Sarah's observing tent

Sarah prepares her equipment in the smaller observing tent.

Covering the tops of the tents with space blankets helped to reflect some of the heat and lower the temperatures in the tents. Shadia, Mindy Lekberg, a high school chemistry teacher associated with Haystack Observatory, and I spent a morning stapling and tying blankets together to make large enough blankets to cover the tops of the tents. In places where wind tended to lift the blankets off the tents, we used binder clips to anchor them to the tent walls.

Assembling space blankets

Shadia and Mindy create one large space blanket.

Once the tents and instruments were in place, observers spent more time practicing and refining movements. Observers needed to develop a light touch on the instruments as they adjusted positions of polarizers, filters, and occulters so that nothing jiggled. They also had to coordinate movements with the other person using an instrument on the same mount.

Mindy and equipment

Mindy rehearses her observing program.

In addition to working the instruments, observers also had to use laptop computers. Dr. Isabelle Scholl wrote a program that showed the observers what to do next and automatically ran the experiments. This was all timed down to the second. Observers wore the laptops encased in custom-designed cardboard holders that held the computers at waist height (or wherever the computer fit best between instruments and people) with cords looped around the neck.

Laptop holder

Shadia operates her laptop in the customized cardboard holder.

During totality no one spoke so as not to break another person’s concentration. Each observer had only one chance to get it right. I was so astounded by the beauty and wonder of the eclipse that I would have shouted with joy if the observers hadn’t needed quiet. I was outside answering questions and showing local residents and the cook we had brought from Majuro how to use the observing glasses. Most locals remained in their houses during the eclipse, even though we distributed observing glasses to all the families.

The European group set up a tent of the type used for lawn parties. They had one gigantic mount that held multiple cameras. In the days before the eclipse the extreme humidity caused the mount to malfunction. Peter Aniol jerry-rigged my hair dryer onto the mount to dry it out. (I never did use the dryer for my hair. The main reason I brought it was my previous experience of needing to dry out my camera in heavy humidity and rain.)

Drying the mount

Peter taped a hair dryer into the mount to dry it out.

Dr. Martina Arndt used her computer to monitor temperature, illumination, and UV exposure for the entire week. UV dropped a few minutes before totality and remained depressed until a few minutes after totality. Temperature and illumination dropped almost instantly at totality and went back up as soon as totality was over. The temperature dropped eight degrees to a relatively cool 88F. To keep the probe in the shade, Martina constructed a shelter out of cardboard boxes that had held some of our food and juice packs. Budget cuts force scientists to get creative.

Weather probe

A sheltered probe connected to a computer inside the door monitored temperature, illumination, and UV.

For more information about the Sun for teachers and children, please see the NASA site for children.

Stay tuned for more adventures in the Marshall Islands. Grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation funded this solar research.