Originally created 08/09/99

Last total eclipse of millennium is coming



LAND'S END, England -- At 11:10 a.m. Wednesday, the small island of Bryher in the Scilly Isles off southwestern England will go dark as the moon slides across the sun.

It will be the first landfall of the millennium's last total solar eclipse, an event that is stirring eclipse fever from Europe to South Asia.

From Bryher, the moon's shadow will race at 1,522 mph across the southwestern tip of England, where it will be pursued by two supersonic Concorde jetliners carrying eclipse revellers, paying $2,400 each for the privilege. Then it will speed across northern France and swathes of Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia, turning day to night in a corridor 69 miles wide.

It will rush across Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Black Sea, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and India, before dying at evening in the Bay of Bengal.

Broadcasters around the world will carry the event live, and millions of spectators are expected to gather along the eclipse route. Despite inflated prices, many hotels have been booked for years.

Authorities are warning people not to look directly at the sun and to avoid traveling during the blackout. Experts say they will experience a spectacular rushing wall of darkness, gusting winds and an unearthly silence as birds and animals are tricked into believing it is night.

"We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no color. The earth was dead," author Virginia Woolf wrote after watching Britain's last total eclipse, on June 29, 1927.

There will not be much time for marveling. At its longest, over south-central Romania, the "totality" -- the period when the sun is totally obscured -- will last just 2 minutes and 23 seconds.

First recorded in Babylonia in the 21st century B.C., solar eclipses were feared by ancient cultures, which believed the sun was forsaking the Earth to the demons of the dark. In ancient China, astronomers who flubbed eclipse predictions were beheaded.

Today, an eclipse is an occasion to celebrate.

In Bucharest, Romania, Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti will perform in front of the giant palace built by former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The German city of Munich is staging a festival of music and food, and Stuttgart plans a rap concert and all-night dance party.

Three big open-air festivals are on tap in southwestern England's Cornwall county, which expects up to 1 million visitors. The Vienna Symphony Orchestra will perform in the northern Turkish city of Amasya, directly on the eclipse trajectory.

For some, it will be a time to work.

Scientists are converging on remote sites in India, Iraq and Iran to monitor the eclipse, and others will be at the Romanian town of Ramnicu Valcea, where the phenomenon will last longest.

Spacecraft studying the event include the European-American Solar and Heliospheric Observatory and NASA's Transition Region and Coronal Explorer. The latter will use a powerful telescope to monitor enormous gas explosions on the sun that send writhing balls of plasma into deep space at speeds of more than 600,000 mph.

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon crosses between the Earth and sun, blocking the sun's light. The moon is only one-400th the size of the sun, but the sun is 390 times farther away from the Earth, making the moon's image almost exactly the same size as the sun's when viewed from Earth.

Eclipses occur roughly every six months, but most are just partial. The next total eclipse will be in 2001 over southern Africa.

Places in the path of Wednesday's eclipse will begin to grow dark more than an hour before totality, as the moon "nibbles" at the sun's rim.

Just before totality, the remains of the sun shining through the valleys along the moon's edge look like a celestial necklace, known as Baily's beads. This is soon reduced to what looks like a diamond ring.

Then the sun is obscured, and its corona -- a radiant halo of superheated gas that surrounds the sun -- becomes visible and the stars come out.

With the sun at the height of its 11-year cycle of activity, scientists hope Wednesday's eclipse will let them learn more about the rarely sighted solar corona.

"Eclipse observations still give us the clearest view of the corona," said Craig DeForest, a solar physicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Among other things, scientists are trying to learn why the corona sizzles at 3.6 million degrees Fahrenheit despite the bitter cold of space. The temperature at the surface of the sun is only about 11,000 degrees, while the sun's core is estimated at 27 million degrees.

Working at the Black Sea town of Varna, Bulgaria, professor Ken Phillips of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Cambridge, England, and Dr. Peter Gallagher of Queen's University in Belfast will use sophisticated cameras to "grab" data from the sun's flares at 50 frames a second.

Phillips hopes to find out whether wildly thrashing magnetic fields heat the corona.

"Much as waves ... transport kinetic energy which erodes the beach, these waves come out of the sun, move along magnetic field lines and dump their energy into the sun's atmosphere," he said.

Scientists also hope to learn more about the gas explosions, which cause magnetic storms that can interfere with radio, TV and telephone signals on earth and disrupt satellite communications. A direct hit in 1989 knocked out power to the Canadian city of Quebec.

And because eclipses are the nearest nature comes to turning off the sun, they also provide a chance to study the earth's atmosphere.