After 15 years and three unsuccessful eclipses – two totals and an annular – the October 2005 annular, coming as it did at the time when the autumn weather tends to be unstable, did not seem promising. As it passed over Madrid and Valencia (Spain’s capital and 3rd city respectively) though, plus a host of other important cities, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss, particularly being invited to join the BBC “Sky at Night” team to cover the event. This was not a particularly good eclipse, with the Moon 5% smaller than the Sun and a predicted duration of annularity in Madrid, almost on the centre line, of 4 minutes 11 seconds, so many of the more spectacular phenomena associated with eclipses would be lacking. However, despite this, there was huge anticipation of the event in the Spanish media as the last annular eclipse to cross the country had been in 1764, although there had been a total eclipse in the Canary Islands as recently as 1959.
The Sky at Night team consisted of Chris Lintott and Jane Fletcher, supported by Mandy Burton from the BBC Birmingham office and the team’s regular cameraman, Dave. The astronomical team was Pete Lawrence, Ian Sharp (who I had not seen since our last day at university in 1982), Damian Peach, Dave Tyler and myself, so it was a powerful one. Having considered the options the chosen site was Madrid Planetarium; Valencia had been examined, but the flights were more expensive and so was rejected (yes, “Auntie Beeb” does count the pennies gathered from the licence fee). Madrid Planetarium is sited, along with the IMAX theatre, in the Tierno Galván Park, close to Atocha station and its memorial to the Madrid train bombings. Although the area around the Planetarium is not exactly picture postcard, the park is a beautiful oasis in a somewhat rundown area of big apartment blocks and it is possible to forget completely that it is in the middle of a city of three million.
The advance guard of the team checked out the site the day before, worrying about the large number of trees and the predictions that fifteen thousand people might appear. They selected an auditorium in the form of a large amphitheatre in a depression less than 150-m from the planetarium. This afforded a good horizon and there was an excellent level spot above it to set up the telescopes. Anticipating crowds and with a need to do a polar alignment, the team decided to meet in the hotel lobby at 6am and check-out before heading off to observe. The sky was still almost black when we arrived and totally clean and clear. The set-up was completed swiftly and we prepared to savour the atmosphere. By 7am council workers had already arrived and were setting up, swiftly followed by the first outside broadcast tv vans. By 8am there was already a small crowd waiting for their eclipse glasses and at least half a dozen tv teams were set up, some already broadcasting for breakfast programmes. Within a few minutes the operation to distribute glasses and information started, with the public directed through two channels of crash barriers where planetarium staff spent nearly three hours frantically passing out glasses as fast as they could. The operation was impressive, orderly and extremely efficient, but even when annularity started the queues for glasses were at least 100-m long. Asunsión Sánchez, the planetarium director commented that more than sixteen thousand people had attended. As the giant screen relayed images from the planetarium’s small telescope the crowds started to spread out through the park. There were literally hundreds of telescopes and camera tripods spread around yet, amazingly, apart from one Finnish amateur, a French one and three or four curious Spaniards, nobody approached the BBC’s vantage point just behind the building.
The atmosphere was amazing, helped in no small part by the wonderful weather and a quite extraordinary sunrise brilliantly captured in an image by Pete Lawrence, with golden sunbeams radiating through the trees. However, Madrid and Valencia were lucky, being sandwiched between two thick areas of cloud that covered a substantial part of the Iberian Peninsula; not far north of Madrid and south of Valencia the conditions were hopeless.
First contact was extremely swift with a simultaneous cry of “it’s started!” going up from everyone (as the sound recording of this moment was apparently poor, watchers of the Sky at Night will see a re-enactment of our reaction to first contact). The Moon seemed to enter the Sun’s disk at an astonishing rate initially.
As partiality progressed, Jane and Chris decided to take the small camera and capture the atmosphere outside the planetarium and do some interviews with the crowd. The words “Can you speak English?” and “this is for the BBC” had an amazing effect, with some people literally hiding and others eager to speak. A huge area was completely covered with people watching with their glasses on, through telescopes and crouched over cameras, while around the big screen thousands and thousands of people watched the images from any vantage point. With a few minutes to go to 2nd contact Jane and Chris decided to set up in the middle of the crowd and prepare to film annularity. The atmosphere was electric as the horns started to close around the Moon. Already several minutes before annularity it was strikingly obvious that the Moon was smaller than the Sun and that it would not completely cover the disk. Second contact was marked by a brief display of beads that were obvious though my 20x80s, although Chris, observing with the naked eye, did not see them.
Through annularity, violinist Ali Malikian of the Madrid Symphony Orchestra played a solo called “Lunar Shadow” that he had composed specially for the event. The haunting music either enhanced or completely ruined the event according to your opinion. The 4m11s of annularity seemed all too brief. During annularity there was a pronounced change in the light: although the sky was still bright, it was quite noticeably much darker and the colours changed completely. Chris had carefully looked up the positions of Mercury and Venus, but was unable to see them. At the same time as the change in the light, the temperature dropped rapidly; most stations reported a drop of around 2.5ºC, but in some the drop was as large as 4ºC (see, for example http://www.astrobril.nl/eclipsen8Madrid.html). All through annularity the crowd was silent and the dim light and muted colours contributed to the ethereal air. While Chris and I commented on the annularity, Jane Fletcher stood solidly with her back to the Sun, filming, without so much as a look over her shoulder during the entire time – the consummate broadcasting professional!
The biggest surprise though came at 3rd contact. Some observing groups had gone to the north and south limits to see Baily’s Beads. Having checked the limb charts we knew that there was a deep valley at 3rd contact that might give beads. What we were not prepared for was the quite dazzling fragmentation of the solar limb. Over the course of more than 5 seconds, through the 20x80s, there were prolonged and spectacular beads that were quite obvious to the naked eye too. The solar limb fragmented in at least 15 places in a stunning and totally unexpected display. This display of beads caused some debate afterwards, with a suggestion that the poor seeing and trembling limb might have caused false beads. Pete Lawrence has though done a careful study of the beads in images and the limb profile and has found that the correspondence is excellent and that both agree with the impressions of the visual observers.
With so many trees around, there was no limit to the possibilities for photographing eclipse shadows. The display was magnificent with the ground covered with countless thousands of pinhole images of the Sun. After annularity the crowds started to disperse rapidly, although hundreds of people remained even at 4th contact. The team was euphoric and agreed that it had been an unexpectedly spectacular event, even if the old hands kept saying “wait until you have seen a total”. The group was great company, the observing site excellent, there was an amazing atmosphere and the weather perfect… what more could we ask for? It turned out that of the group only one person had seen an eclipse previously, with everyone else unsuccessful in their previous attempts. Success at my 4th attempt after 15 years has just made me hungry for more.