“Completely Off the Charts”: Indonesia Prepares for March 9 Eclipse


“Completely Off the Charts”: Indonesia Prepares for March 9 Eclipse
Graham Jones | Jakarta Globe | 19 November 2015
Image: Romeo Durscher

Nyepi – the Balinese Hindu New Year, and a public holiday for all Indonesians – coincides with the new moon of the spring equinox. In 2016 this will be a very special new moon, because it will produce one of the most spectacular things in nature: a total solar eclipse.

On Nyepi Day (Wednesday March 9th) the Earth, moon and sun will become perfectly aligned. The darkest part of the moon’s shadow, which is called the umbra, will strike the surface of the Earth, tracing a delicate line thousands of kilometres long – but just 100 to 150 kilometres wide. Anyone situated somewhere along this narrow path of totality will experience a total eclipse.

“On a scale of one to ten, a total eclipse is a million,” says Fred Espenak, a former NASA astrophysicist and a leading expert on solar and lunar eclipses. “It’s completely off the charts compared to any other astronomical event.”

The umbra will touch down at sunrise in the Indian Ocean, and travel eastwards. At 7:18am local time the umbra will hit the west coast of Sumatra. Seven minutes later it will reach Kalimantan; eleven minutes after that it arrives in Sulawesi. The umbra completes the overland sections of its journey a further 19 minutes later, when it leaves the east coast of North Maluku and heads out into the Pacific.

The largest city on the path of totality is Palembang, where the total eclipse will last just under two minutes. (Fun fact: Palembang also had a two-minute total eclipse during Nyepi in 1988.) Other major cities on the umbra’s route are Palangkaraya (where totality will last two and a half minutes), Balikpapan (one minute in the southern part of the city, less than that in the northern part), Palu (two minutes) and Ternate (two and a half minutes).

People in Jakarta will not experience a total eclipse, but they will (weather permitting) be able to see an 88 per cent partial eclipse. The show starts at 6:19am local time, when the sun is low on the eastern horizon. For the next two and a bit hours, until 8:31am, the moon will move slowly across the face of the sun, from top to bottom. The maximum eclipse will be at 7:21am – at that time, all that remains of the sun will be a thin crescent, the shape of a back-to-front letter C.

Important safety note: NEVER observe a partial eclipse with the naked eye. Even if the sun is 99 per cent covered by the moon, the remaining crescent is extremely bright and can cause permanent damage to the eye. (The only time it is safe to view an eclipse with the naked eye is during the few short minutes or seconds of totality during a total eclipse.)

There are two main ways to safely observe a partial eclipse (or the partial phases of a total eclipse). The first is by projection, which can be done very simply with two pieces of card: make a small hole in one card, and use it to project an upside-down image of the sun onto the other. You can experiment by changing the size of the hole, and the distance between the two pieces of card. NEVER look at the sun directly through the hole.

The second way is to use a specially designed solar filter, such as eclipse glasses or an eclipse viewer. Even when using solar filters, however, NEVER stare at the sun for long periods. NEVER use normal sunglasses, film or smoked glass, and NEVER use solar filters with binoculars or telescopes (unless it is a specialist telescope filter, and is placed on the front, sun-facing end of the instrument).

There will be events held across the Indonesian archipelago to mark the eclipse. One of the most ambitious will be a series of “Global Communication and Science” workshops that I am running with Tadulako University in Palu. Based on the idea that an eclipse creates a unique and powerful ‘learning moment’, the workshops will focus on astronomy, science and English-language communication skills; they will also bring together students in Indonesia and Japan for a series of online, cross-border teamworking activities.

“More than 3,000 scientists from around the world will be coming to Palu to observe the eclipse,” explains Marsetyo Marsetyo, the head of the international office at Tadulako University. “For two minutes on the morning of March 9th, Palu will be the centre of the scientific world. So this really is a golden opportunity for our students to think about global communication and science.”

The workshops are being supported by Garuda Indonesia as part of the company’s community development programme. “Education is a key part of our commitment to corporate social responsibility,” says Fikdanel Thaufik, a Garuda Indonesia vice-president. “We are delighted to be supporting this project, which will build bridges between students in Indonesia and Japan, and help students to become more effective global citizens.”

The next total eclipse visible from Indonesia will come on April 20th 2023, when the path of totality will cross through a sparsely populated region of West Papua.