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464
Section: Astronomy
To Mоngolia for the “Russian Eclipse”

To Mоngolia for the “Russian Eclipse”

On August 1, 2008 the total solar eclipse—called “Russian” all over the world—occurred. The path of totality went from the north to the south through West Siberia including the city of Novosibirsk counting a million of citizens. It was there that observers from all over the world, both professionals and non-pros, rushed. A representative expedition of the Irkutsk Institute of Solar-Terrestrial Physics, SB RAS, was there too. However, the expedition of the Astronomical Observatory of Irkutsk State University decided to watch the “Russian eclipse” far from the Russian borders. The IRKUTSK—GOBY— ECLIPSE—2008 expedition set off, in jeeps, to Southwestern Mongolia…

This expedition of eclipse hunters turned out to be out-of-the-ordinary. The path of solar eclipse began in Canada, after which the Moon’s shadow slid across the Arctic Ocean, skimmed Greenland, and entered the Russian territory, traveling over West Siberia, from north to south.

The path of totality went through the cities of Nadym, Nizhnevartovsk, Gorno-Altaisk, and Byisk but the capital of the eclipse—referred to as “Russian” by the mass media worldwide—was Novosibirsk. It was to this Siberian city that professional and amateur observers from all over the world flocked. Hotel rooms had been booked long in advance. Apart from solar astronomers, who observe the solar crown from the professional viewpoint, eclipse fans, who chase eclipses across the world, arrived.

A representative expedition of the Irkutsk Institute of Solar-Terrestrial Physics, SB RAS, headed by the Institute’s Vice-Director, Doctor of Physics and Mathematics Victor Grigoriev, successfully performed their observations. The researchers used sets of research equipment they had prepared specifically for the occasion and brought to Novosibirsk; the following day, they took part in the scientific conference that was held at Novosibirsk University.

Another expedition of Irkutsk scientists initiated by the Astronomical Observatory of Irkutsk State University set off to a much more remote place— Southwestern Mongolia.

The destination was not an easy one as only a helicopter or a jeep could have taken you to the spot in the Gobi desert where the path of the total eclipse passed. The former means of transport was declined because of a host of technical and financial problems. The latter was not easy either, yet feasible.

The distance to be covered was impressive: 5,000 kilometers! We had to prepare the automobiles properly—from acquiring special-purpose tires and clearance adjustment to mounting portable radios and procuring sets of instruments, materials and spare parts in case a repair was needed—and it cost the earth. As our route ran across the places without roads or gas stations, additional gas tanks had to be fitted. Understandably, no research institution would dare to send its employees by automobile to another country along such an extreme route. The expedition became possible only thanks to the enthusiasm of its members.

There were twelve people in the expedition, four of whom decided on going in their own jeeps.

This project brought together the interests of different people and organizations. Researchers of the Astronomic Observatory Sergei Yazev, Dmitriy Semenov, Anatoliy Arsent’ev, and Konstantin Kravchenko were planning to perform a series of observations of the solar crown at the time of totality. Company managers Pavel Nikiforov and Sergei Evchik, former members of Irkutsk Astronomy Club, were dreaming of seeing another total eclipse. The seasoned jeep-rider Maxim Antipin was striving for vivid impressions in a new country. Photo journalists Evgeniy Kozyrev and Dmitriy Dmitriev were planning to add unique pictures to their photo collections. The East Siberia news film studio sent their cameraman Anatoliy Melnikov.

As a result, the interests of scientists, mass media, businesses, and travellers intersected. The project attracted the attention of local mass media (Aist TV company and Vostochno-Sibirskaya Pravda newspaper, which provided information support) and was funded by local businesses (Eastland travel agency and the companies Woodtex, Filtr, Garmin, and Technotest).

The main driving force of the project though was the concern of the four jeep owners, who set their mind on implementing this highly challenging idea. Focused efforts of all the parties got this project off the ground.

Following the paths of Chinggis Khan

In the evening of July 24, the first two automobiles – M. Antipin’s Toyota Prado and D. Dmitriev’s Nissan Safari - left from Irkutsk. The team included the pilots’ wives, Uliana Antipina and Elena Dmitrieva, researchers of the Astronomic Observatory A. Arsent’ev and S. Yazev, and photo reporter E. Kozyrev.

After the night’s drive, we arrived in Kiakhta at the Mongolian border, and by night reached Ulan-Bator. Vice Director of the Center of Astronomy and Geophysics, Mongol Academy of Sciences, Demberel put us in a hotel, where we were joined by the cameraman of the East Siberia news film studio A. Melnikov, who had flown in from Irkutsk.

The following morning, we set off to our observation site located at about 1,700 km southwest of Ulan-Bator. Shortly before that, some astronomers from Mongolia and Slovakia had departed there. Together with us Vice Director of the Institute of the Earth Crust, SB RAS, Doctor of Geology and Mineralogy Kirill Levi and his colleagues started in their own automobile.

Mongolian roads are amazing: the wide macadam motorway—The Millennium Highway—shortly forked into dozens of cart-tracks winding across the steppe.

Mongolian landscapes display an amazing variety: weird mountain contours and sand hills, deserts and semi-deserts, steppes… Arid cracked land and full-flowing rivers—we had to tow the automobiles across them to keep the engines out of the water. On the way back, we came across alpine landscapes with woods, mountainous rivers running deep down in gorges, and salty lakes with rolling “sea waves”. In fact, I lack words to describe the things that we have seen

By that time, the second team had left Irkutsk: Suzuki Escudo of the expedition’s coordinator D. Semenov and P. Nikiforov’s Isuzu MU with S. Evchik and K. Kravchenko on board. In Ulan-Bator they collected our Mongol guide Gana. He happened to be quite a personality: a modest man with perfect manners, a good physicist specializing in elementary particles, who used to work in Dubna, Moscow region. I have to say that all the Mongols we met were extremely friendly and did their best to help us.

Riding non-stop, the second team caught up with us two days later, in the village of Sharga, and from then on the expedition traveled in a single pack.

The members of the expedition lured by Mongol exotica got it in abundance. An unforgettable experience was spending the night in the rocky Gobi desert, in the piercing wind, under the magnificent starry sky.

Mongolian landscapes display an amazing variety: weird mountain contours and sand hills; deserts, semi-deserts, and steppes… Arid cracked land and full-flowing rivers – we had to tug the jeeps across them to keep the engines out of the water. On the way back, we came across alpine landscapes with woods, mountainous rivers running deep down in gorges, and salty lakes with rolling “sea waves”. In fact, I lack words to describe the things that we have seen.

Mongolia is camels and horses, birds of prey and grey herons, huge flocks of sheep and goats, unchangeable yurts, and unexpected signs of civilization: mobile phones, satellite dishes and solar batteries next to most yurts

I can remember camels and horses, birds of prey and grey herons, huge flocks of sheep and goats, unchangeable yurts that match any scenery perfectly, and unexpected signs of civilization: mobile phones, satellite dishes and solar batteries next to most yurts.

Our pack crossed the high mountain ridge (2,600 meters above the sea level) in the Mongolian Altai and went down to a valley. On July 31, 24 hours before the eclipse, we made camp at the pre-set site in the vicinity of the small town of Altai in Mongolia’s south-easternmost region (on the map we found at least six various Altai’s). Our tents were 400 meters from the camp of Mongol astronomers, who worked under the guidance of a colleague and good friend of ours, Batmunkh.

Mongol crown

The weather did not let us down. A couple of days before the eclipse, it was overcast, and heavy clouds scudded across the sky. One of the Mongols said with confidence:

“We are going to have good weather tomorrow!”

“Why?” we asked.

“Because it was bad yesterday,” was the answer.

On the day of the eclipse the sky was clear. We started meteorological observations in the morning, recording changes in temperature, humidity, and pressure. In the daytime, the thermometer showed over 40 degrees Centigrade—nothing extraordinary for a desert.

The light looked somewhat bizarre, unreal… The shadows were clear and contrastive. It had grown much darker. You no longer needed a filter to watch the solar crescent becoming thinner as the black disc of the Moon was covering it.
And finally, the edge of the Sun flickered for the last time before disappearing completely. In the reigning darkness, Mercury and Venus shone brightly

… First the mountains in the north-west grew dark. We saw distant clouds at the horizon doing dark one by one. Then the entire northern part of the sky became dark blue…

The light looked somewhat bizarre, unreal. It had grown much darker. You no longer needed a filter to watch the solar crescent becoming thinner as the black disc of the Moon was covering it.

And finally, the edge of the Sun flickered for the last time before it disappeared completely. In the reigning darkness, Mercury and Venus shone brightly.

A yellow afterglow lit up along the horizon. The silvery grayish solar crown flashed around the perfectly even black disc of the Moon—coronal streamers became visible. They were not as elongated as those seen during the totality of March 29, 2006. At the north-western edge, there was a crimson projection—a chromospheric prominence spurting into the crown.

… It all took an instant. In two minutes, the opposite side of the black disc flashed blindingly: the Sun reappeared. The totality was over.

We managed to do everything we had planned. D. Dmitriev took a series of pictures with exposure intervals. His professional camera was installed on an astronomic tripod, which revolved automatically following the sun. All the photo and video cameras performed well. Even the mysterious failure of our tried electric generator shortly before the eclipse was not a problem: the clockwork engine of the astronomic tripod was connected to the Suzuki lighter, and the Japanese gadget did not let us down.

The data collected will be processed in cooperation with the experts from the Institute of Solar-Terrestrial Physics, who successfully performed their observations in the vicinity of Novosibirsk.

At night, we attended the “soiree” held at the Mongol camp. All eclipse observers—Mongols, Russians, and Slovaks—gathered around a huge fire, twice as high as a man. Overjoyed Batmunkh (the observations had been a success!) approached one after another, filling the glasses. Cheers in all the languages could be heard, and we approved the idea of our Mongol and Slovak colleagues to sing together the “best known song in the whole wide world”, “Podmoskovniye vechera”.

We have overcome

Eclipse observations have shown that he Sun has lots of surprises in store. During the current (a little bit too long) cycle of minimum solar activity, the solar crown appeared to be not too elongated (as it had been anticipated) but very inhomogeneous (which is inconsistent with modern concepts). This means that the theory, once again, needs to be of modified

We had anticipated the way back to be hard, and so it was. We chose a shorter route, which came to an end near Khubsugul Lake, but our journey began to tell on the automobiles.

First, Isuzu’s coil spring snapped. I still cannot imagine how the damaged car managed to travel almost 300 km to the town of Khovd, where the local craftsmen substituted truck springs for the two damaged coil springs (the second was half-broken too).

Suzuki lost its exhaust on the rocks in a deep rut; also, the damper had to be replaced. The dampers of the flag automobile, which had carried the Russian flag all the way, collapsed as well.

Within over a hundred kilometers to the town of Khankh, close to the Russian—Mongolian border, the heavily loaded Nissan came to a stop and would not re-start. None of the jeep “survivors” could have tugged the broken automobile in the slushy clayey rut, across the mountainous ridges stretching along the eastern bank of Khubsugul.

The only way out seemed to leave somebody there while the others would go for help. So the Dmitrievs’ couple and E. Kozyrev stayed with the automobile trying to find the reason of the failure, while the other three automobiles set off on a search for a truck or a tractor that would drag the Nissan.

In the meanwhile, the sunny weather seemed to have exhausted its resources and bad weather set in. The clouds were lowering, the temperature fell to 6° С, and it was raining. The jeeps skidded on the muddy slippery slopes of the mountains, making incredibly slow progress. They traveled at the speed of a pedestrian. The night went by.

Almost at noon we arrived at a camp of Mongol road workers. Though it was not easy to get our problem across to them, D. Semenov and P. Nikiforov somehow managed, and the Mongols began to prepare their GAS 66 to help the Nissan. The cameraman T. Melnikov accompanied the Mongols back to the broken Nissan.

The rest of the way to Khankh was not a piece of cake either. To cross the last river on our way, the flag jeep, M. Antipin’s Toyota Prado, had to tug Suzuki and Isuzu, and Suzuki looked very much like a submarine.

It took almost two days to haul the Nissan over the Khubsugul ridges. We had arranged it that, in case of emergency, the astrophysicists’ truck of the nearby Sayan Laboratory with the Institute of Solar-Terrestrial Physics would take the broken jeep to the Observatory’s site, from where it would have been easier to evacuate the passengers. But, as luck would have it, the Nissan finally started. Its crew had to spend two days waiting for the Monday—the border outpost Mondy was closed for the week-end. Having waited in line for quite some time, the Nissan crossed the border on August 11 and late at night arrived in Irkutsk.

The expedition, from its start— departure of the first team on July 24—to its end—return of the last automobile—lasted 18 days.

Useful experience

In the Mongol town of Khovd K. Kravchenko surfed the Internet and spotted a comment to the piece of news about the totality observations performed in Novosibirsk by our colleagues from the Institute of Solar-Terrestrial Physics. According to the author of the comment, people like us were squandering the government’s money doing the things that were totally unnecessary.

I do not think that the readers of SCIENCE First Hand need to be persuaded of the importance of basic research. Observations of the past eclipse have shown that the Sun has lots of surprises in store. For instance, during the current (a little bit too long) cycle of minimum solar activity, the solar crown appeared to be not too elongated (as it had been anticipated) but very inhomogeneous (which is inconsistent with modern concepts). This means that the theory, once again, is in need of modification. So the eclipses will remain an object of observation—and each new eclipse will bring the scientists new information.

And was it worth going to Mongolia to watch the solar crown? Would we have rather joined the flood of Novosibirsk observers?

We believe we did the right thing. The climate of West Siberia could not guarantee the success of the observations, and the Mongol mission was a kind of standby in case of bad weather. Both expeditions have received interesting information, and our data are complementary.

The IRKUTSK—GOBY—ECLIPSE—2008 expedition has shown that, given proper organization, businesses and mass media can agree to invest in purely scientific projects. It was raising these funds that got the project off the ground because, for a number of reasons, RAS Siberian Branch can hardly have brought it to life.

As a result of the expedition, important scientific data have been obtained (without any backing from RAS), which probably demonstrates that research development can go various ways, including unconventional ones.

The members of the expedition lured by Mongol exotica got it in abundance. An unforgettable experience was spending the night in the rocky Gobi desert, in the piercing wind, under the magnificent starry sky

As for the problems we encountered during our journey, they are indispensable companions of any “jeep” trip, and doing without them would seem boring to many travelers.

None of the members of the Mongol expedition regrets having taken part in it. I am positive that our united team will remember the spectacular Mongolian landscapes and the grandiose totality show as long as they live.

P.S. The next totality will be observed in the south of China on July 22, 2009.

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