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Eclipse chasers who revel in the shadows
By Cai Wenjun

THE only total solar eclipse this year will occur on Friday, and the best places to observe it on land are two island groups: the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic and Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.


While most Chinese will be content to stay home and observe the celestial wonder via media and the Internet, one group of domestic stargazers has left for Europe to see the eclipse with their own eyes.

The 20-member group, including two children, is led by Guo Gang, a Shanghai bank official and head of an astronomy club.

All the members have comfortable incomes, long travel experience and a yen for offbeat adventure. They are first and foremost addicted to eclipse-watching.

“A total solar eclipse is the most spectacular of astronomical events,” said Guo. “When the sun goes black, the mystery of the universe tingles inside of you and your imagination knows no bounds.”

Guo, who has traveled to the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China and to Australia and Kenya to view past solar eclipses, never tires of the magic an eclipse creates.

A solar eclipse takes place when the moon passes between earth and the sun, totally or partially blocking the image of the sun for viewers on Earth. A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon’s apparent diameter is larger than that of the sun, blocking out all sunlight and turning daylight into darkness.


The Faroe Islands and the Svalbard archipelago sit inside the semi-circle path of totality. Total solar eclipses are only visible in a narrow band, typically 100-200 kilometers wide.

Inhabited spots where a partial eclipse can been seen on Friday include Greenland, Iceland, Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East and northwestern Asia.

Guo’s team chose to go to Svalbard. The trip will include a 10-plus-day tour around northern Europe. “We will be able to see two great celestial spectacles – the solar eclipse and the northern lights,” Guo said. “It will be a very memorable trip.”

Eclipse-chasing has become something of a regular event for Guo’s family. His wife Zhou Ying, a finance manager, and their 6-year-old daughter will accompany him on this trip.


For Zhou, who said she knew nothing about eclipses before marrying and helping her husband translate astronomical material, it will be the third time viewing an eclipse.

“In fact,” she said, “we are already planning our next eclipse expedition — to Indonesia in 2016. In addition to taking our daughter and little son, we have also invited our parents.

Her mother, she said, shares the excitement. She was part of the group Guo organized in 2008 to view an eclipse in Xinjiang in northwestern China.

Another member of the current group, Wu Jiaoqi, said she is anxious for her 4-year-old son to get a taste of eclipse adventure and will take him along this time.

“Kids don’t remember everything when they grow up, but they can feel things in their hearts,” said Wu.

“I want to cultivate in my son an interest to astronomy because it’s so amazing.”

It’s true. The passion of many eclipse chasers began at a very early age.

Zhu Huiwei, a 34-year-old engineering professional, said he watched his first eclipse when he was a primary school student and it ignited his passion.

Guo Gang said his interest in things celestial began when he was in middle school and identified the bright planet Venus in the sky.

Li Xuemei, 38, an experienced eclipse chaser, said she has been interested in science since she was a little girl. She is the domestic fan with longest record of eclipse chasing, including traveling alone to remote Easter Island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean in 2010 to view a total solar eclipse.

Like-minded people hold regular discussions online and organize groups for such things as viewing meteor showers. Whenever a solar eclipse is on the calendar, they start preparations six months in advance to find the best viewing spot.

The only thing that defies planning is the weather.

“It can cause great disappointment during a solar eclipse,” Guo said. “But we can’t do anything about clouds and storms. We just have to hope they don’t appear.”

Weather aside, sites for eclipse viewing do throw up some interesting, often out-of-the-way places to visit, he added.

Remote spots visited included a trip to Chaka Salt Lake, at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters in northwest China’s Qinghai Province.

And Guo went to Xinjiang to view a total eclipse in August 2008.

“We used different transport, including camels, to get us to the best observation point and saw the eclipse for two minutes when clouds finally dispersed,” he recalled. “I can still see it in my mind’s eye. A black sphere with fringed white light hung in the sky. To my left, I could see the snow-capped Tianshan Mountains.”

Guo said that perhaps the most exciting eclipse trip was to Kenya in 2013, when the longest hybrid solar eclipse occurred. It involved a total eclipse and an annular eclipse, when the sun and moon are exactly in line, but the apparent size of the moon is smaller than that of the sun. The sun then appears as a very bright ring, or annulus, surrounding the dark disk of the moon.

A terrorism attack in Kenya just one month prior to the eclipse worried but didn’t deter the group. On the day, a sudden sandstorm kicked up, interrupting part of the celestial display.

“We finally saw the 20-second end of the eclipse, and we were all very impressed,” Guo said. “It was an amazing trip, taking us to the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s the kind of experience each member will never forget.”

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