The Solar Wind Sherpas: A 2016 Indonesia Adventure
NOTE: Here you will find the blog for the 2016 total solar eclipse expedition to Halmahera, Indonesia, previously at:
For the Solar Wind Sherpas, a new year means a new total solar eclipse (TSE). Though on average TSEs occur once every 18 months, it has been just under a year since our observations of the 2015 TSE in Svalbard. From the arctic we move on to the equator. Well, just above the equator (0 deg 42’34.71″N). This year’s TSE will be seen from Indonesia where we will be setting up in three separate locations: Plun Island (Group S1), Maba (S2 Group) and Kartika Buli (S3 Group).
Journey with us as we make our way to this remarkable place and prepare to observe this unmatched phenomenon. Though we will be in remote locations with little or no internet, I will do my best to update this blog as soon as possible.
An Update on Our Journey and First Preparations
It is day 4 and what a journey so far! First, let me begin by stating that we are all doing well. I’m sure you have heard by now that there was an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. We are further East in Buli, at least 1000 miles, so nothing was felt here.
Four days of traveling have brought us to this amazing place! The team traveled from Hawaii, Wales, the Czech Republic, Germany and France to Jakarta to meet up on Monday evening before we continued our journey through this wonderful country. Despite a couple of small flight delays in London and Istanbul, most of us made it to Jakarta as planned. Our team members coming in from Prague weren’t so lucky. A snowstorm in Prague delayed their flight into Jakarta and hence their travel to Buli. They will be able to join us later today. On Tuesday we flew from Jakarta to Ternate. Thirty four suitcases with telescopes, cameras and other equipment, hard-case boxes filled with mounts, tripods and cables, 6 very large and heavy aluminum boxes with large telescope equipment, 12 personal suitcases, and many carry-ons all accounted for at the airport meant we were ready to transport everything to our observing sites. It must be noted that people in Indonesia are very helpful, cheerful and welcoming. We’ve had an immense amount of help with all our equipment and luggage like never before. Our next journey was by speedboat. The journey lasted about 30 minutes to the island of Halmahera where we were taken to Buli by car.
After a long and deeply nerve-racking (put lightly) car ride, there was a surprise welcome ceremony organized by the people of Buli. What a spectacle! Words cannot describe how beautiful, warm, cheerful, energetic, and passionate everyone is in Buli. The dances and songs were amazing. They speak of the people of Buli and their history. We learned of the vast multi-culture embedded within Indonesia. People dressed in their traditional clothes from Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, among others, greeted us during the ceremony. They are so happy to host us in this lively town and how honored and privileged we are to be here! Please click on “Picture Gallery” to view more photos of this ceremony and some of the great food we’ve had this week. Photos will be added when possible.
This brings us to today. The team will be split into three groups, those staying in Buli (S3 Group), those who will setup up in Maba (S2 Group), and those of us heading to the island of Pulau Plun (Plun Island, S1 Group). Though we all wish to have the time to sleep and get over our jetlag, the eclipse will not wait for us. It is 6 days away and preparations have begun. At the Kartika Buli Resort Hotel, the S3 Group sets up a tent that will house the equipment for observing the eclipse. Ben is helping since his team (S2 Group) is delayed at the moment. My group, S1 will start setting up this afternoon on Plun Island.
Day 5: Team Splitting
The S1 Group’s travel to Plun Island has been delayed until today. Luckily, that gives me a chance to write this new post before I lose Internet completely. There are so many pictures and videos to post but the slow connection will not allow me to do so. They will be posted in the near future so keep checking.
In yesterday’s post I wrote about the number of boxes and suitcases of equipment we brought with us. To put things into perspective, as an astronomer, you book time on a large telescope somewhere and then you go observe. You point the telescope at an object in the night sky and there it is. To observe an eclipse, you must first find the location where the total solar eclipse (TSE) will be seen. This may not always be over land. If it is, then the planning begins. If you look at the “2016 Solar Wind Sherpas Page” you will notice the different locations where the team has observed these events. TSEs don’t have a set location or time so we chase them. Then comes the specifics: once we know the country where the TSE will be seen, can we find locations that will allow us to set up our equipment? Is there electricity for the equipment? Are there regulations or permissions needed? Can we get all our equipment to each location? What are the weather conditions in that area? Where can we accommodate the group? What are the costs? Where and when do we apply for funding? Will we be funded? Once these questions have answers, we carry out the expedition and hope for clear skies. If we don’t have clear skies, we must wait for another 12-18 months for the next TSE and the time and preparation begins again! If we do have clear skies, then it’s a success if everything has been set up properly. Every cable, screw, camera, filter, etc. must be in its place. Everyone works diligently for hours each day. Once everything is set up, testing begins. It makes a lot of sense to come several days before the eclipse in order to achieve all this and to leave a few days after because packing up all the equipment takes time. All the planning, all the preparations, the hard work, and the fun are a reflection of the time, care and dedication of our team leader. Her passion for these events, her thirst for learning more about our Sun, her management in planning and carrying out these expeditions, her immense care for the well-being of each team member and her skills are what make these expeditions not only possible, but a wonderful experience for all of us. Beyond the good data collected during an observation, the success of these expeditions comes from having such a wonderful and irreplaceable team leader like Shadia.
A Special Note
We have all been touched by the diversity of cultures in Indonesia and the peaceful coexistence of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. It should be a model for the world! Every place we have been to, people have been extremely generous and welcoming making us feel at home despite the language barriers.
—Solar Wind Sherpas
March 5th: Plun Island
The next several posts I wrote each day during eclipse week, but unfortunately did not have access to the Internet to post them until now. Included are a few pictures. Many more will be uploaded in the “Photo Gallery” page this coming week. Enjoy!
We are finally on Plun Island and what a beauty! This tiny (250m x 1000m) uninhabited island is the perfect setting for this year’s TSE. We are staying in two-bedroom bungalows and there is a staff that is also staying on the island with us to help out and provide us with wonderful food. We are very grateful to them for their care and help and for engaging with us while we work.
We have set up the tents that will house the different instruments and now the assembling begins. As I look around at my team, I can’t help but admire their hard work and dedication. The temperature is very high and so is the humidity but they keep on working! Peter Aniol is setting up his telescopes in the yellow tent. Judd and Pavel are working on setting up in the blue tent. Adi is setting up his spectrometer, which will also be in the blue tent. Shadia and Naty help at both setups.
The eclipse will take place on Wednesday March 9th at 9:53 am local time (GMT+9). Here at Plun Island we are approximately at maximum totality. The eclipse will last for 3 mins and 20 sec. Today, at that same time, we had perfect skies. We expect the same conditions for the day of the eclipse. Fingers crossed!
Some technical problems arose while trying to take sky flats. We are not sure if they are due to the camera or the optics. This is a new hurdle we have to cross. The calibration tests with each imaging system pointed at the solar disk using a combination of ND filters specifically selected to sufficiently attenuate the solar disk at each of the wavelengths of the narrow bandpass filters yielded satisfactory results. These will serve as photometric calibration. In addition we have a Coronado and a separate camera observing the sun with an H alpha filter to be able to follow the behavior of prominences throughout totality.
March 6th: Maba in Ben’s Own Words
Myself (Ben), Petr and Jan composed the team for observations in Maba. My role was to operate the four single wavelength cameras in the same setup as the other sites. Petr and Jan had white light amateur cameras to capture the full spectrum of the corona. We also had help from Garry and Jana during the first couple days to set up our observation site and align the cameras.
Our observation site in Maba is a large Indonesian government building. We set up our observation tent on a second floor balcony of the building with a fantastic view of the sky. The building is used as a meeting space for the local government across the island of North Maluku.
After two days in Maba we had made friends with the driver and assistants assigned to help us during our time in Maba. They took a couple from our group to get some fresh coconuts for us to eat (I stayed behind to continue calibration of the cameras). Upon returning Garry told me that they were the first foreigners to have ever entered the village, apparently everyone in the village had to shake their hands and meet the foreigners.
Over the course of our time in Maba several reporters came and spoke with us. Some were from local and national newspapers, and one was even from CNN! Some of the reporters wrote that we were from NASA in their articles causing the Indonesian military to come and question us about who we were and who had invited us to use the government property for our observations. Thankfully after meeting with us and checking our passports they were convinced that we were not the US government employees and that we could continue with our planned observations.
March 7th – Our Stay on Plun Island
To be a TSE chaser means to be open to new adventures and what an adventure this has been so far! To be on this tiny island somewhere in the Pacific and sleep in a bungalow with your door open and the ocean a few steps from you is an experience like no other. Birds that sing through the night, the occasional squeal of a bat or two or three, and the very loud generator right outside our bungalows all add a new layer to this adventure. So does showering using water from a tank in our bathrooms (saltwater), having misaligned toilets and washing our clothes by hand. Sure it can get to be too much at times, but we are here and we must make the most of it. Adi has done just that. He jumps in the ocean to swim and then he stops, pulls out his razor and shaves. Duncan’s bungalow is on the other side of the island (~5 min walk) but it’s a nice walk through the mini jungle and he has a gorgeous view of the West. Pavel and Peter are enjoying their swims in the ocean and their astrophotography (gorgeous night skies!) while Duncan enjoys sugar cane.
When technical difficulties arise and communication with the other team members is necessary, the lack of Internet and phone signal is a major frustration. Thankfully, for a couple of team members, satellite signal allows them to send texts, sometimes call, the others at Buli and Maba. All things considered, what a gift to have some “time off” from the emails, the calls, the deadlines, the meetings and in a sense, the responsibilities. Our only responsibilities and frustrations are those relating to the eclipse. I understand how immense those responsibilities and frustrations are, but we are here to observe and obtain new information about our Sun, to enjoy this experience, to connect with one another, to learn new things, to grow, and to share with all of you. We own the week!
I mentioned briefly in a previous post how wonderful the staff here on Plun Island is. They are always in high spirits and more than willing to help us out and accommodate us. Their cooking is fantastic! The fish is caught in the mornings so it’s always fresh, they make their own bread and they make delicious cakes. Nurul speaks a bit of English so she helps us communicate with everyone. They are all very warm and happy. We have become very fond of them!
March 8th: One Day to Go
Clouds took over the morning sky today. There was minimal breeze so they were barely moving. During the night, a couple of team members got up to check for stars in order to focus the equipment but no such luck. Maybe tonight. At eclipse time, there was no Sun to be observed. We can’t help but worry about the weather tomorrow. We wonder what the weather is like at the two other sites (Maba and Buli). We weren’t as talkative as we usually are during breakfast and during equipment testing time. We carried on as planned, testing the software, the filters, the telescopes and the cameras. We know the island will start to get crowded this evening and before the eclipse tomorrow, so we roped off the area around our tents in order to give us space to work and protect the equipment. Duncan, Shadia and I tested our cameras and GoPros choosing various spots and angles within the enclosure to capture the eclipse, the people, the landscape and the shadows.
In the midst of the worry and the frustration, we took time to celebrate Judd’s birthday with lunch, a gift (a gorgeous flower bouquet handmade with seashells by one of the staff members), a card with an eclipse and Plun Island on it hand-drawn by Naty, and a delicious cake made by the staff.
With a chance of clouds tomorrow morning and knowing we will not sleep tonight, we all count the hours until the eclipse. Taking flat images, calibrating the spectrometer, aligning the telescopes and cameras and watching the tourists crowd the island we reach the night hours, hopeful that rain will come and the clouds will dissipate by morning.
March 9th: We Came, We Saw, We Half-Conquered, We Left
The clock strikes 4am and the sky is perfect, the Milky Way is in full view, our hope is intensified. By 5:30am, clouds start to cover the sky once again. By 6:30am, we sit at the breakfast table talking about the situation but not really saying much. We stay positive and decide to carry out the observations and experiments as planned. By 8am, our worry increases. The Sun is hidden behind thick clouds. Only for a minute or two at a time are we able to see enough of the Sun to use our eclipsing glasses. It is a waiting game, best put by Pavel who compares the eclipse to a lottery. We purchased a very expensive lottery ticket and we must wait to see if we have the “winning numbers.” First contact at 8:37am (local time) means the curtain is lifted and the Moon has begun its way across the stage. During moments of less cloud density, we put on our eclipsing glasses and watch the crescent that begins to form. A beautiful spectacle so amazing that no cloud coverage can take it away.
We’ve provided the staff with eclipsing glasses so they can enjoy the show from beginning until totality. One girl’s reaction, Nurul, was absolutely inspiring. Her breath was taken away when she first saw the crescent forming. She was shaking with excitement. What a beautiful moment to witness! As scientists, we look for the clear skies and the perfect picture and data. We sometimes forget that we are looking at nature at its best. Two celestial objects have lined up to give us this beautiful picture. Nurul reminded me of that. What an honor to share this experience with her and the others.
At 9:53am, we reach 2nd contact. The Moon has taken center stage. Totality is then reached. The solar disk is completely covered. Pink/red prominences appear. There is much cloud coverage so we are only able to observe the low corona. The clouds have deprived us of the extended corona. However, Peter A. and Martin take some H-alpha images right after first contact and a few white light images during totality. They get a gorgeous picture of the prominences. Adi gets some spectral data. Pavel takes Fe XIV and Fe XI images. Shadia captures the eclipse on her DSLR camera. Duncan and I take care of the video of the eclipse and the surroundings. We capture the crescent shadows on the ground and the leaves after totality. We capture the surroundings as it gets darker for ~3mins. We capture the people around us. We capture our team. Our team members at Buli are unable to capture anything since they had more cloud coverage than we did. At Maba, our team members were able to capture the lower corona. Despite the lack of images of the extended corona, we have data for the inner corona. We are not leaving empty handed!
During totality, you could hear the excitement from the people around us. For most, it was their first time seeing an eclipse and they truly enjoyed it. To us, it was another remarkable eclipse from which to extract the best data in order to carry on with our research. Shadia and I present the staff with eclipse t-shirts as a token of appreciation for their hard work in helping us all week. They presented us with two beautiful handmade seashell lamps to remember them by. It has been a very moving experience being here, getting to know them and sharing our adventure with them. They will be missed!
Now that we have perfect skies and the eclipse has passed, the task of disassembling the equipment and packing it is underway. We have until tomorrow to finish packing, as we will make our way back to Buli.
Eclipse Experiences – Our Team Members at Maba and Buli
In Ben Boe’s Own Words (Maba) – As the sun rose on the day of the eclipse the clouds moved in and it began to rain. I was sure that we would be unable to see anything during the time of totality. Only a half hour or so before the clouds began to break. There was still cloud cover but the sun began to be visible through the light clouds.
Jan and Petr decided to leave our site in the government building around one hour before totality in order to find a break in the clouds. They drove around between the ocean shore and the edge of the nearby mountains, in the end they set up only a few hundred meters from the original location. In the meantime I remained at our site (the equipment was far too complex to move that quickly) and took images. While the sun was covered with clouds I was able to capture some decent images of the inner corona with all four cameras. Petr H. was also able to capture some white light images. Hopefully with processing we will be able to get some good information about the sun!
In Petr Horalek’s Own Words (Maba) – The eclipse from Maba was seriously disturbed by heavy clouds and rain. While Ben stayed at the Maba site with the Atik cameras for precise experiments, Petr H. and Jan decided to move away for clear weather. They asked the local driver Is, who was so excited and so helpful. After a wild chase of clear skies around Maba, the group was able to see the eclipse through thin clouds. The eclipse took 3m 17s from the site and Petr H. had only 40 seconds to set up the heavy equipment before the total eclipse started. Fortunately, thanks to lots of practice in the days before the phenomenon, he made it in time. The solar corona was amazing even in the not so clear sky and the huge pink prominence was visible even to the naked eye like a shinning pearl on the edge of a “black eye in the sky”.
In Jana Hoderova’s Own Words (Buli) – The afternoon before the eclipse, we expected rain to move in and clear up by the next day. Throughout the night, we wake up to check the sky. Unfortunately, the clouds continue into and throughout the morning. Rain begins to fall half an hour before first contact.
At the Kartika Buli Resort where we were set up, children, teachers and others from the area came in local costumes for a ceremony they had prepared. At this time, there were approximately 200 people in the lobby area of the hotel. They wish to begin the ceremony at 8:30am local time (approximate time of first contact), not realizing how engaged in our work we must be before and during the eclipse. I must tell them no for the time being. I spend some time explaining to the teachers the phenomenon that is about to unfold in the sky. They are surprised when I tell them they can take off their eclipsing glasses during totality. This seems funny to me but it would have been a shame for them to miss the opportunity of witnessing eclipse totality because they didn’t have the proper information. Petr H. has a book about solar and lunar eclipses. I use this as a reference tool to help me explain the eclipse. Everyone looks forward to the show!
There are a lot of people outside the hotel and inside around the courtyard (where we are set up) but we don’t see any issue since at this point, we don’t think we’ll be able to take much data. Besides, it is nice to be surrounded by such happy people and to feel the positive energy from them. We see some clear sky but not where we need it to be. With such heavy clouds, the people inside the hotel don’t know exactly what they will see in the sky. I countdown and shout, “3 minutes to start” and again at second contact, “it starts now.” It gets dark. After about a minute into totality, a small area to the right of the sky clears up enough for the planet Venus to appear. I shout to the crowd, “Venus!” The eclipse goes by so quickly and it’s now over. We didn’t see the corona, just a few seconds at the end of totality. Maybe it was Baily’s beads (as the moon “grazes” by the Sun during a solar eclipse, the lunar limb topography allows beads of sunlight to shine through in some places).
I, Petr S. and Garry (Buli Group) are disappointed. We look at each other and know that we lack any data. We are hopeful that observations on the other two sites were successful!
Now that the eclipse is over, the show must go on! Outside the hotel, the ceremony starts. It is very much like an invitation ceremony and a war dance! People are having fun. The young teacher, Alan Maspul, translates to me during the ceremony and explains the importance of it. We have the opportunity to participate in the war dance! I decide to go for it then Petr S. while Garry takes a video of it. People are smiling and we all enjoy the day!
And, of course, there is almost a clear sky a few hours after the eclipse!
March 10th – Plun Island, Packing, Reflecting
We pack under perfect skies. Where was this sky yesterday? With frustration, we carry on with the packing. The island is cleared of tourists and part of the staff has left. The island is slowly becoming uninhabited once again. With all the equipment and luggage ready we wait for the speedboat to arrive. We take advantage of the moment and swim one last time. We take a few last pictures and say our goodbyes to the staff when the boat arrives. We wave to them from the boat and watch Plun Island disappear in the distance.
Back at the Kartika Buli resort, everyone is happy to be back, looking forward to a quiet night and “real” showers. For a couple of us, nostalgia hits. We even miss the loud generator during the night!
March 11th – Back in Buli
Morning comes and a few team members go through the data collected during the TSE. Backups are made and shared with the other team members. Now the data is ready to be processed and analyzed. That will come later. For the rest of the day, we explore a bit of Buli. We buy a souvenir here and there and some fruit. We walk along the streets and people wave and ask how we’re doing. Many of them take pictures of/with us. We have not gone unnoticed during this expedition. We walk through Christian and Moslem neighborhoods. Everyone lives in peace. They see beyond the different religions, ethnic backgrounds and customs. Everyone seems so happy, always greeting you with a smile. Most are very humble. What an inspiration to us all!
March 12th – Back in Ternate
In the morning we head to Ternate. After a ~5 hour journey by car, we take a short ride on a speedboat to Ternate. The heat is very intense and the humidity is very high making the unloading of the boats, carrying the luggage and the equipment, and reloading onto cars a difficult task. Luckily, as previously posted, we had lots of help. After arriving at the hotel and having lunch, we walk around Ternate. We take in the culture, the people and the customs one last time. We have our last dinner together and then try to get some sleep since we have an early day tomorrow.
March 13th – Departures From Jakarta
We leave for the airport very early to catch our flight to Jakarta. With so much luggage and equipment to check in, the flight is delayed because of us. Once on the plane, we are able to relax for about 3 hours. The noise from the cameras lets me know the others are taking the last set of pictures of Indonesia just as I am. The view from the plane is a spectacular one of the islands, towns and volcanoes that make up the country. With a final picture and a subtle wave goodbye as the clouds take over, we prepare for landing. At the airport in Jakarta, we say our goodbyes and part ways. The Hawaii group has a couple of hours before their flight, the team members flying to the Czech Republic have flights later that day, Peter A. (Germany) and I (UK) don’t have flights until the night so we go hang out the rest of the day. Amidst the exhaustion, a sense of accomplishment, frustration and nostalgia creeps in. Counting the hours until we each reach our respective homes and feeling anxious about sorting through the data collected we conclude this expedition and look forward to our next TSE together…USA 2017!!!