Countdown 2 (getting ready for the eclipse)
Follow the team moment-to-moment as they prepare on Woleai to film the total solar eclipse.
by Eclipse Field Crew • March 5, 2016
Dates all shown in Micronesian time.
Wednsday, March 9
It's Eclipse Day! (You thought the eclipse was on Tuesday, March 8? Read Paul D's explanation and don't worry, nobody missed it!)
Checking out the weather. This is a Google Earth map based on recent (as recent as 3 hours) satellite imagery. Woleai is the little red dot near the center of the picture.
Tuesday, March 8
Yesterday we awoke to a cloudy sky and a heavy downpour. We had to wait around for the weather to clear. When we got to the runway, we untarped the gear and powered up. Immediately a power source blew for the close-up white light camera. Bill let me know that we would have to do the broadcast with only three telescopes. Bummer.
Paul, Eric, Troy, and I headed off to the elementary school to teach from 10:00 a.m. to noon. There were about 150 students; 50 of them had come in from the outer atolls to attend. It was really fun, especially when we took a break and went outside to look at pinhole viewers and check out the sun with our eclipse shades. Their faces really lit up!
Eclipse viewing glasses are all the rage on Woleai. (photos by Exploratorium)
Then we rushed over to the runway for our rehearsal. It was well into the 90s and (of course) extra muggy. I did my best, but I started hacking while interviewing Bill (I have a bad cold) and we had to stop the show. Then I messed up all my cues, because we were missing a telescope. Did I mention it was hot?
We finished rehearsal at 1:50 and had to be at the high school at 2:00 to teach another 180 kids, They were great students, but the classroom was so hot and we didn't have any water. I have never sweated so much in my life!
One of the teachers said that she had seen an eclipse before (I’m not sure which one), and that everyone had been very scared. They gathered up their friends and family and hid in the longhouses. They thought maybe someone would die. I told her their reaction made perfect sense. It is so dramatic, and if you didn't know what was happening it would be terrifying. I told her I was so happy to be here, so that they could all go out and enjoy the eclipse.
P.S. Yes, I am very scared about the clouds.
(photo by Exploratorium)
Rob S. writes:
Today we woke up to real weather. Overnight some clouds came in with rain squalls. We made a quick run for the island from our live-aboard in between the showers. We are hoping for no rain tomorrow.
Rainy weather on Woleai (photo by Exploratorium)
Every night we cover our gear in case of rain, and this time we were really glad we did. On our second practice run, all of the production gear seems to be working despite the rain. We had a few audio and satellite transmission issues in yesterday’s test, but today our broadcast back to the states went smoothly and everything’s working.
The production studio under wraps (photo by Exploratorium)
Last night’s rain did have one casualty. A power supply for one of the telescope drive motors got waterlogged and failed when we turned it on. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, it was the one 48-volt DC power supply for which we were not able to get a backup before we left home. Bill Dean performed emergency surgery, but it was too late and it died for good. We are working on locating four car or boat batteries to see if we can kludge together a substitute. If this fails, we will be short one telescope—but we have three others to use.
Because of the jungle here, we will not be able to see the horizon during the eclipse. This is too bad, because during a total solar eclipse, on the horizon, there is a 360-degree sunset/sunrise. Rick had the idea to fly the drone up above the trees to get the image, so we have enlisted our ship’s crew to do the flying while we are busy with the production.
The ship’s crew (in blue shirts) get flying lessons so they can pilot our video drone. (photo by Exploratorium)
Monday, March 7, afternoon
Rob S. writes:
We did the first test of our uplink today. We have two days of testing, which is a good thing, it turns out. As usual, things go wrong at first. The video connects to a satellite high over the Pacific Ocean and down to our Napa downlink okay, but there are a few cutouts of the signal. However, the backup channel—through Singapore and then back to the U.S. by fiber-optic cable—works perfectly, so we will use that.
(Editor’s note: unless you’re a tech geek, you might want to skip directly ahead to the next paragraph.) The video encoding was set for 1080i, but some parts expected 720p, so we got no signal into the Exploratorium. That got fixed. Then the telescope-only feed did not have audio, which meant that the encoder to online streaming did not work. Whatever happened to good old NTSC?
It’s really hot and bright on the tarmac during the rehearsal. The camera crew cannot see their monitors because the sun’s so bright—that is not good. During the eclipse itself, it will not be so much of a problem, since it will be getting dark, but for rehearsal it is brutal. We need to move tomorrow’s rehearsal to 9 a.m. to survive.
Amaris and Phoebe at their cameras, trying to see what they're filming (photo by Exploratorium)
Monday, March 7
Rob S. writes:
Today is all about getting the gear set up and working. Bill Dean, our telescope maestro, was busy setting up five telescopes on three tripods to capture the sun. One captures a full-sun image in white light, one a full-sun image using a hydrogen-alpha filter, two are for close-ups, and the last one is a spare. The telescopes are connected to HD video cameras and the signal is sent to our open-air production studio.
Bill setting up his telescopes (photo by Exploratorium)
Aaron, our video engineer, takes a look at our first video image of the sun, (photo by Exploratorium)
Sunday, March 6
Rob S. writes:
We woke up this this morning to learn that the M/V Hapilmohol 1 supply boat arrived during the night from Yap. This large boat makes periodic supply runs between the scattered islands of the Federated States of Micronesia, with passengers and supplies being ferried ashore by small boats. On board this trip were 5–10 eclipse-chasers, along with many local Woleaians and the body of a Woleai resident who had died off the island and was being brought home for burial.
The M/V Hapilmohol 1 (photo by Exploratorium)
The F/V Mathawalyap also arrived last night. This 50-foot fishing boat usually does long-line tuna fishing around Yap. For the eclipse, 13 hardy eclipse-chasers chartered the boat for a 48-hour trip through rough seas from Yap to Woleai. They slept on the deck under a tarp and ate cold food the whole trip. They came by our telescope site to see what we were up to.
The F/V Mathawalyap (photo by Exploratorium)
Saturday, March 5
After getting all of the gear delivered to the site yesterday, we began the job of setting up the telescopes, the production studio, and the satellite uplink antenna. The staff of the local school cut out a “green room” in the jungle canopy to provide us with a cool place to escape the hot sun.
The days are getting busier and busier and it is getting harder to keep track of them. Everyone seems to have the same problem. (“What are we doing for the satellite test tomorrow?” “OMG, we don’t have anything ready!” “Wait, what day is it tomorrow?” “I don’t know, I think it’s Sunday.”) I think it’s due mostly to the heat. You sweat so much here, and none of us seems able to drink quite enough water.
Everyone is working really hard on their own pieces of this very complicated puzzle.
The crew, working late (photo by Exploratorium)
This morning our assistant Stanley was in the high school office monitoring the radio. A large government vessel, H-1, will be arriving tomorrow morning bringing many more people to the island for the eclipse. (We’ll see if this is good or bad!)
Stanley said that he hadn’t heard from another tour group that left Yap on Thursday in a small fishing boat. They should have been here around noon today, but they haven’t arrived yet. The seas were pretty rough, so they may have stopped at a small atoll to rest. Knowing how hard the trip was for our crew, I can only imagine what a difficult journey it must be on a 60’ fishing boat, with no indoor cabins. I am worried for our fellow eclipse chasers!
Rob and Stanley (photo by Exploratorium)
I wanted to stay out of the way of our tech crews, so I headed out to search for the Women’s Long House. It was a very long, hot walk …and did I mention the biting flies and mosquitos? Even with 100% deet, you have to constantly swat. I hope I don’t have any bites on my face for the webcast! But there is also great beauty…this is a tropical paradise, really.
When I arrived at the long house, there were about 50 women making traditional foods. I shyly approached and sat down at the edge of things. A woman slid over and patted the spot next to her. I carefully sat down (lavalavas can be tricky!) and asked if I could help. They were wrapping mashed taro and breadfruit into banana leaves and tying them with some fronds. It reminded me of making tamales. I got the hang of it, and after 20 minutes, my neighbor indicated that I could take two packages with me. I asked why they were making so much food. They said it was because H-1 was arriving the next day, and tradition dictates that they feed everyone who comes to Woleai.
Preparing a feast (photo by Exploratorium)
One of the women asked me why I was here. I told them that on Wednesday the moon would block their view of the sun. Everyone in the long house stopped talking and paid attention. I mimed the alignment, and talked about safe viewing. When I told them that at 11:38, the sun would be blocked, and that the blue sky would melt away to reveal a night sky, you could have heard a pin drop! They were completely riveted. It was very special. I had a couple dozen eclipse glasses in my basket, so we stepped outside, into the sun, and they looked up. I got lots of big smiles; they really loved it. But I made a big mistake: I didn’t have enough glasses for everyone! The tradition is that when you give gifts, you must give to everyone. I promised to come back with enough later, and I think they were okay with it.
After lunch and a cooling dip, the crew went back to work on the set-up. Wayne and Rick have gotten awesome drone footage, but they wanted to get more.
Wayne and RIck pilot the video-equipped drone. (photo by Exploratorium)
The on-camera talent—Paul, Eric, Troy, and I—stayed onboard to work on the program script. We still have a ways to go, but it's getting there!
After dinner, Paul and I practiced our eclipse schtick for the ship’s crew. Now it’s 12:30 a.m. in the Woleai lagoon and I really, really need some sleep! I got a bad sore throat yesterday and I think it may be getting worse. Oh no! A sunburned host, with bug bites and a raspy voice: not good!
Friday, March 4
Rob S. writes:
Our first job on Woleai is to find the right location for setting up our telescopes and production gear. After scouting the island, we chose the abandoned airstrip originally built by the Japanese during World War II.
When we saw this airstrip on Google Earth images, we had high hopes we could fly to the island. It turns out the airstrip has been out of commission for years due to part of it sinking into a taro bog.
We need to focus the telescopes early in the day of the eclipse, when the sun is low, and our site on the airstrip is not blocked by trees.
Wayne and Rick spent the day getting drone footage for the opening sequence of the webcast and for our “Sense of Place” section. They only crashed it into the trees once, which is pretty good! (I was worried it might end up in the ocean.)
Rob worked on the BGAN satellite backchannel most of the day. Pheobe was shooting video. Liz was helping with the placement of gear.
I went to the school to meet with our Main Man on Woleai, Stanley Retogral, who helps oversee the schools here. He has arranged for a pickup truck to help move our gear (and us) around the island. The truck driver Allentino, who is the high school principal, told me that I must meet immediately with Joanne, the head of teaching for Women’s Traditional Arts. Joanne presented me with a lavalava (sarong) made by her students especially for me. She said that it would be nice if I would wear it and showed me how to wrap it.
Joanne and me in my new lavalava (photo by Exploratorium)
In the yard, Stanley instructed some of the male students to get us coconuts to drink...so they climbed up a tree right there in the school yard and presented us each with one!
When it was time to go, we were waiting on the beach for the skiffs, hot and exhausted. The water was just too enticing, so we jumped in for a quick swim. The water is crystal-clear and so salty that you can easily float. So nice!
Cooling off (photo by Exploratorium)
When we arrived at Woleai, the island had been without power for almost two weeks. This is a very real hardship for the people here. The engineers from our ship, the Solitude One, checked it out, worked on it for many, many hours—including doing some welding—and fixed it! This was the best gift any of us could have given the Woleaians.
Later that night, we watched a few lights go on from our boat and we all gave the engineers a big round of applause. After dinner, the video crew continued to work late into the night in preparation.
For more eclipse information and to watch the live broadcast, visit our eclipse website.