Blagodarya, Bulgaria!

A perfect eclipse in the country,
where the astronomy fun never ends

More reports from the same observing site from B. Brinkmann and G. Dittie; his detailled story (in German). This website is still under development, and I hope to have better scanned versions of my eclipse pictures soon. Those of the 2nd contact and of the prominences have already been replaced! Also to come: more pictures from the trip itself. More reports from Bulgaria were published by Bivanov, the "X-Team", the SOLARIS group, T. Kostadinov and Meteo.dir.bg. More Bulgarian reports by E. Strach, J. Koski and A. Knöfel.


2nd contact, the innermost corona, chromosphere & prominences.


The solar corona with two different exposure times.
Look at a special page for image processing experiments!


3rd contact is approaching fast - with splendid prominences.


That was it - until 2001...!

See these (and even more) pictures with a black background! Or look at an earlier version.



Observers at our Shabla site, around 1st contact.


The equipment used for the eclipse pictures shown above.


That was fun!



Bulgarian papers celebrating the event the next day. The first headline reads: "the eclipse has passed with champagne and kebaptsheta," the second one says: "the black Sun has burned the eyes."


Bulgaria's astronomy magazine "Andromeda", a science magazine and a booklet on the eclipse.


Eclipse preview in the Bulgarian edition of "Micky Mouse"...


It increasingly felt like looking at an alien universe. Here we were, sitting in a cybercafe in Varna on the sunny Bulgarian Black Sea coast, waiting for the great solar eclipse of 1999 in a few days time - and there were these strange news from Germany on the screen. When we had left Western Europe in late July, media interest in the celestial event had just started to shift from mere curiosity to the outright bizarre. The last I had heard was a call from British government authorities to watch the eclipse only on TV that all the news outlets had carried dutifully - the same madness that had swept Indonesia in 1983 and Mexico in 1991, ruining the experience for millions. So it was happening again now, in the middle of a continent that thought of itself as particularly "civilized"... But what we saw on the newsfeed from back home now, in the last few days leading up to the eclipse, was beyond even my wildest fantasies. People were increasingly worried about bleak weather forecasts for E day, of course, but that was only part of the stories.

There were spokespeople for the federal government and the trade unions alike calling for time off for German workers during the eclipse. There was the statement from a famous fast-food chain that no, their employees would not be allowed to go out watching because people would want hamburgers even in darkness. There were numerous alerts to drivers to be careful on the road because others might "react unusually" during the eclipse. People should also be aware of "dark characters" that might threaten eclipse watchers. And there was a major scandal brewing after a TV economy magazine had declared the solar filter glasses sold by several famous suppliers unsafe - an allegation that those companies denied vigorously, only a handful of improperly manufactured filters had been distributed, they claimed. Getting those eclipse shades had become increasingly difficult in Germany anyway as most stores were already sold out: More than 20 million of the viewers had been distributed so far. Already some violent incidents, with customers fighting about the last pairs, were reported ...

Meeting Eastern Europe's astronomers

How different things were here in Varna were we - about a dozen amateur astronomers from Germany, the Netherlands and Northern Ireland - had joined some 50 Bulgarians, Macedonians, Serbs and Russians for MEPCO'99, the fourth Meeting of European Planetary and Cometary Observers. These meetings have been held in roughly 2 year intervals since 1992, and after three events in Germany they have now started to jump all over the European map (number 5 is currently planned for Tenerife in September of 2001). The invitation to Bulgaria had , of course, become all the more attractive as Varna was marking the Southern limit of the path of totality for the last total solar eclipse of the Millennium: By going just 60 km to the North you could be on the centerline, just after maximum eclipse and just before it would leave the European continent forever. And hadn't the 'Bible' for this eclipse by NASA said that weatherwise "the best prospects in Europe are found along the shores of the Black Sea"?

In contrast to neighboring Romania and Turkey the Bulgarian tourism authorities had done little to advertise this fact, however, and it total only a few thousand dedicated eclipse tourists had been lured here. Likewise there was hardly any eclipse commercialisation apparent in the streets of Varna (or other Bulagrian cities), only days before the eclipse some filter glasses appeared at newsstands. The main attraction seemed to be a major techno music party, starting the night before, followed by a pre-eclipse 'chill-out', observations of the eclipse (that would last only seconds in Varna itself) and then some more raving... But if you wanted to get more serious you could also book a bus tour to Cape Kaliakra near the centerline which was advertised in some hotels in the resort towns further up the coast - in German only, by the way. The average Varna resident, it seemed from the newspaper headlines, was looking forward to the eclipse mainly as a convenient 'rescue' from the summer heat.

Astronomy, Rhodopian style

Then again there is the Bulgarian astronomical scene which manifests itself in surprising ways. A few of us had taken the opportunity to travel to the Rhodopians mountains, in the far South of Bulgaria, just a few kilometers from the Greek border. Here are located both the town of Smolyan and the remarkable National Astronomical Observatory of Bulgaria. What a contrast to the deserted Mongolian observatory I had stayed at last year (see the report)! At Rozhen NAO all telescopes are in fine shape and in use - and the largest one was just having its 2 meter main mirror re-coated. The instruments are not only used by professional astronomers, by the way: Often those are accompanied by amateurs who can pursue their own programs. A 70 cm Schmidt camera is particularly popular, as is a 60 cm Cassegrain with a high-quality electric photometer. Observers from the same Varna group that was also organizing MEPCO'99 are frequent guests here, concentrating on asteroids (esp. NEOs) and comets.

Smolyan has many attractions, too, that make the lengthy journey there worthwile (there are no plane or train connections, only a winding mountain road from Plovdiv). You can visit idyllic mountain villages nearby, explore the spectacular cave of Uchloviza (beware: the entrance is near the top of a steep mountain you've got to scale first!) - or go to the planetarium. With a staff of almost 20 - among them 7 professional astronomers, all women, by the way - it is a remarkable institution, with a repertoire of 70 different programs. The projection and A/V equipment is state-of-the-art, inclusing laser effects. And last but not least the planetarium can provide nice accomodation for visitors, a kind offer we couldn't resist. The same goes for using their office's internet connection, finally a chance to keep up with the news (or lack thereof) from DS One's Braille flyby and the Lunar Prospector crash on the Moon. Needless to say that the office computer runs the SETI@home screensaver (that 'distributed computing' experiment truly is distributed). And Smolyan seems to be pretty wired anyway: When we met some friends of the planetarium's staff in a restaurant, each of them not only spoke excellent English but also had an e-mail address.

MEPCO'99

The same could be said of many of the Eastern European particpants of MEPCO'99 (and us Westerners anyway): Staying in touch and in some cases even working on joint projects has gotten so much easier since the first MEPCO just seven years ago. And the flow of information clearly goes both ways. A Macedonian professor, e.g., was most enthusiastic to learn about freely available image processing software (PerlDL), while we were quite surprised by advanced efforts of Serbian meteor observers to fully automate data taking and analysis. Other remarkable aspects of MEPCO'99 included the unusual projection facililites that had been installed for the meeting in Varna's city hall. There were, e.g., both a video projector and several computers - but no way to directly connect them. No problem: The computer screen was just 'observed' by a video camera, and projecting electronic image files was possible. And since the camera operator loved to pan around quite a bit, this really spiced up the Powerpoint presentation by a British solar researcher who had volunteered to give a presentation on the SECIS experiment being put up in Bulgaria for the eclipse. (Actually it wasn't at the time - the equipment would arrive on the site only a day before the event ...)

Quite enormous was the media interest in the meeting: Since key organizer Veselka Radeva is already a TV personality in Varna, both TV crews and newspaper reporters attended some sessions in large numbers. For some reason a simple review talk I had offered to give on the recent discovery of the lunar sodium tail by American astronomers had been scheduled as the very first talk of MEPCO'99, and so it drew particular interest. It was featured at length in some TV news - and even made the lead story of a local newspaper! Clearly the presence of foreign astronomers - and be they just amateurs - was something newsworthy. And it made good advertising for the large and active Varna astronomy group. If only more time would have been available to meet the Eastern Europeans outside the more or less formal conference sessions: Since hardly one of them had been able to pay the full (all- inclusive) conference fee, our ways always separated, not only overnight but even for the lunch breaks (when we were escorted into the city council's dining hall). In the end we had to more or less insist on a joint post-eclipse party with everyone on board - and made many new friends that night. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Apart from the scientific sessions of MEPCO'99 (that featured even some presentations by professional astronomers from the region) there were three more events included in the agenda. The first was a daytrip to the lovely old island town of Nessebar, down the coast. This had two unexpected spin-offs: First of all we bought dozens of cheap (and shockingly powerful) Chinese laser pointers that were offered there (and only there) at every corner. And specifically for me a long quest came to an end as I found - in an antique store, of all places, next to some old military medals and night vision goggles - the one item I had searched for all over Bulgaria the past week: a cable release for my eclipse camera! This low-tech item ('Zhilo' in Bulgarian, meaning literally 'sting') was either unknown or sold-out in all the major camera stores I had checked in Plovdiv and Varna, rather unusual as otherwise the supply situation in this country seemed near-perfect (another one of many pleasant surprises awaiting Western visitors to this hidden gem of the Black Sea).

Exploring the Eclipse Zone

The next special activity for MEPCO's participants was a field trip to the North of Varna, scouting for the best eclipse observing site two days before the event. Bad weather from the week before had gone for good, the forecast (on cnn.com) was fine, and we had no more doubts that we would all see the eclipse. Most of the Bulgarians were heading for the town of Balchik, either to an airforce base or to the coastal promenade. There would be cold drinks provided - but only 2 minutes of totality. Why waste a full 20 seconds, we wondered, and so we asked the minibus driver and our hosts to continue on Northwards. The main sea resorts Sv. Konstantin i Elena (aka. Drushba), Golden Sands and Albena long behind us, we were now in a vast agricultural area into which few tourists ever venture. One last attraction was the Cape Kaliakra we already knew from the trip offers in the hotels of Drushba. Spectacular scenery, no doubt, but it could become pretty crowded on E day (I did indeed, we later learned). Also some of our party had quite a struggle with a dubious waiter (who actually undercharged me, oh well...) - not the best place then.

The trip continued along the coastal road - and weren't that tents and telescopes there in a farmyard in the village of Kamen Briag? Indeed: We had stumbled upon a true astronomical settlement, inhabited by Russian professional astronomers and a gang of international meteor observers from IMO (some of which had also augmented the MEPCO crowd). And then three of us couldn't believe our eyes: There was Dmitri Petrov - the same Moscow- based astronomy educator we had met 2 1/2 years ago on the Transsiberian Railroad on the way to the eclipse in Chita (see my report)! Here he was again, together with some students and a most unusual eclipse experiment. From left-over spacecraft parts (he has connections to the Khrunishev plant...), including a solar array and skin of one of the Buran shuttles that never flew, he had constructed a device to precisely measure the ambient light during the eclipse. And the time signal was to be delivered by the electronics of a Geiger counter he happened to own - no need to buy an extra clock, then...

The equipment brought by the astronomers - from the famous Sternberg Institute in Moscow - was dealing with solar physics more directly. Two teams (one led by a woman named Galina who had already been to nine total eclipses!) had set up sturdy horizontal telescopes and heliostat mirrors: The typical equipment I had encountered at so many professional solar eclipse camps all over the world. But the key this time were sophisticated Fabry-Perot interferometers (what's that? check out any optics textbook!) that would be used to measure the velocity field in the solar corona with high precision, to test models of coronal heating by the very scientists who had now positioned themselves in the track of totality. The team leader, Prof. Edward Kononovich, even gave us an excellent impromptu science talk in the searing heat about the open questions in coronal physics. All too soon we had to carry on, though, with our own site search. We were now just a few kilometers from the central line, with at least 2 minutes and 20 seconds of totality to expect. Now it was more a question of convenience where to position ourselves.

One spot we had located on the map did indeed look perfect: an accessible spot on the coast, even with a restaurant. But others had found it, too: a British group was expecting 1000+ ravers right here for yet another techno party... So on went the journey, to the camping ground of Dobrudsha with many facilities and a nice beach (and a mysterious 'radioactive lake' nearby). Actually it was too nice, with ample sand - not good for our instruments. And who could guarantee that the lights wouldn't go on during totality, or that someone would fire rockets or light a fire to celebrate it? The nearby quiet town of Shabla would have been a viable spot, but a large schoolyard where a large expedition from Rozhen Observatory was supposed to be was empty - it seemed just too odd to simpy occupy it ourselves. After a brief discussion the decision was nearly unanimous: Lets head for a line of trees we had driven by, in the fields between Shabla and the coast - there would be ample shade and noboby else. The trip back to Varna took just one hour, but our host were worried about possible congestion on eclipse day or police checks. Eventually we negotiated a departure around 7:30 on the morning of August 11th.

Most of the Western Europeans (plus a Canadian geophysicist whom I had met during the Leonids expedition of 1998 and who had joined us by now - after an odyssey on various airplanes) had stayed at the Bris-1 hotel, located on the Northern outskirts of Varna. It had an excellent restaurant, a perfect 'Perseids observatory' on the 4th floor, and frequent bus connections both up and down the coast, making it a perfect base for either eclipse preparations or heading for the beaches (hey, we are amateur astronomers :-). The day before the eclipse was spent shopping for fruits (a giant water melon sets you back just 0.25 Euros here) and 35 liters of water (in case the eclipse would made us thirsty) and checking various websites. The forecast for the Varna area had remained perfect, while CNN predicted showers both for Stuttgart and Munich, the two largest German cities in the zone of totality. Oh dear ... The SOHO LASCO images of the solar corona showed a stable, exciting maximum configuration. And Calcium images of the chromosphere from Meudon Observatory revealed a large number of substantial prominences: That promised an unusually exciting view, for our bare eyes to see in less than 24 hours.

Eclipse Day!

The dash North of our minibus on eclipse day came to an abrupt stop pretty quickly when a tire blew, but the driver completed the repair in no time. We calmed down the eclipse novices in our party: Such a thing always happens, don't worry. The traffic wasn't much heavier than usually, and while there were lots of new police checkpoints now, the officers merely looked on - more two hours prior to 2nd contact we were back at the spot near Shabla we had scouted out two days earlier. Joining us Western MEPCO participants were some young Bulgarians who also didn't want to waste a second of totality. A particularly shady tree was selected and the telescope mounts and tripods put into position and protected by towels from the growing heat - it must have been 35 degrees C or more. What followed was waiting under an almost boringly blue sky: Not a single cloud was sighted here all day, and - lacking any means of communication - we could only imagine what was going on at the same time in Western and Central Europe where countless amateurs just like us were frantically hunting for holes in the cloud cover. To kill some time two of us walked into nearby Shabla, only to find the town largely deserted, hardly any eclipsophiles were around. Eventually we had some early lunch at a bar, then headed back.

First contact was only at about 12:46 Eastern European Daylight Time, and it would be 14:12 before totality came. As usual the first hour passed pretty uneventfully while the Moon slowly krept across the solar disk and covered a large sunspot group. Somewhere in England, then France, then Germany the umbra arrived, and here it was still broad daylight. But then one could notice the light fading ever so slightly, the color of the sky and the landscape wasn't the same anymore, and finally the changes started to speed up. And then the shadow came! As a dark wall towering in the West the umbra of the Moon manifested itself, getting darker and darker. The lack of any clouds meant that the actual motion (with twice the speed of sound) could not be seen, but it was evident enough that something big was going to happen pretty soon. As usual I followed the last seconds up to 2nd contact through the viewfinder of my camera, with the filter removed. And even before the last rays from the photosphere had vanished behind the Moon the large prominences came into view, much more delicate and beautiful than on the computer screen the day before. And bright red, of course.

Since I had dared, for the first time, to work at 2000 instead of 1000 mm of focal length, the prominences loomed particularly large. And because I was using an angle view finder I was actually looking downwards at that time, like staring into a microscope. The most amazing moment came now, when I lifted my view and looked at the dark Sun directly: There was the corona, in a shape I had never seen before. Instead of the clear East-West orientation of the streamers that had always been present during my previous seven clear eclipses (of 1983, 1988, 1991, 1994, 1995, 1997 and 1998), there was now a textbook-style maximum corona hanging in the deep blue totality sky, with streamers going in all directions. (You can enjoy various SOHO views in the archive at ESTEC that also has striking solar pictures from many other telescopes in space and on the ground! The Meudon and Kiepenheuer images show dramatic partial phases ...) Quickly I removed the tele-extender from my optics to get down to the usual 1 meter focal length and to record the corona in full. There was an overwhelming amount of fine detail in the innermost 15 or so arcminutes all around the dark Moon, with prominences visible all around the limb - one of the few advantages of short eclipses when the Moon is not much larger than the Sun. This was too much to take in in full in the less than two minutes left, but the photographs would document the intricate interactions between the prominences and the corona, more complex than I had ever seen.

All too soon the chromosphere and first rays of photosphere appeared again on the other side of the Moon, bringing totality to a close - but the show wasn't quite over yet. "Shadow Bands!" someone shouted a few meters away from me where a large white bedsheet had been placed on the ground. The effort had actually been insprired by a presentation at MEPCO'99 by Eric Strach who had made one of the best ever video recordings of shadow bands on Curacao in 1998 (it was even shown on "The Sky at Night" on the BBC). Jumping over various optics and tripods on the ground I arrived just in time to see the elusive atmospheric-optical phenomenon in all its clarity, patterns of dark and light bands rushing over the ground. It actually helped to lift the sheet and look at it at a slanted angle: That shortened the spacing of the bands artificially and enhanced their contrast. But then the phenomenon faded, and most started to disassemble their equipment - only a few diehard experts observed the 4th contact as well, before we all headed back to Varna. And while many who had opted to try their luck in France, Germany or Austria were still caught in long traffic jams, we were already celebrating our success - and planning for the future. Such as the next total eclipse (Southern Africa, June 2001). The next MEPCOs. Or the next trip to Bulgaria, a country none of us had known before and that had given us such a wonderful dose of astronomical fun!

Daniel Fischer
First version posted August 20th / 15 pictures added August 23rd / minor updates Aug. 26-28th / better eclipse pictures posted and some links added Sept. 6th and 7th / pictures added to dark.html Sept. 16th.

P.S.: "Blagodarya" in the title means "thank you", of course, and if you're interested - "slunze" is the Sun, and "zathymnenie" is an eclipse.

P.P.S.: Many links to reports from other places can be found in the Cosmic Mirror issues # 143 (in the sidebar of the lead story) and 144 (in the green box)! More stories and pictures were collected by F. Espenak, G. Ewert, the Kufner-Sternwarte, the Royal Greenwich Observatory, the New Scientist and and ProHosting.

Further individual reports & pictures of note came from L. Comolli, J. Rao (on the Atlantic Ocean, 12 seconds after the umbra hit the Earth!), Kern & Carlos (corona radially filtered & enhanced!), F. Espenak (a superb corona composite that was even celebrated by the BBC, plus fine wide-angle views), S. Teiwes, W. Koprolin, M. Legros, the Sternfreunde OWL, H. Clawson and M. Aytun. Then there is a collection of eclipse images by meridian circles (no kidding)!

Perhaps of interest: the London Science Museum is collecting observations of various phenomena during the eclipse (see also an older New Scientist story). / A fine version of the view from Mir of the umbra has been published. / But there is also the department of incredible nonsense about the eclipse, such as these pages from GreatDreams.com (another page from the same source), EnterpriseMission.com, ORBIT and the Millennium Group...

Returning to reality, here are the next eclipses for Europe plus detailed maps for past & future European total ones! And all the eclipses of the next 10 years. To get even more details for future events try the Bureau des Longitudes.