26 AND COUNTING / The Liebenberg Eclipse Chronicles / Part 2
By Jim Melvin
CLEMSON, South Carolina – Clemson University scientist Donald Liebenberg has personally witnessed and researched 26 total solar eclipses over the past 60-plus years.
Liebenberg, who has been an adjunct professor in the College of Science’s department of physics and astronomy since 1996, has literally travelled all over the world to enter the path of totality of solar eclipses. He has studied them from the ground, on ships in the middle of oceans, and in airplanes. He even watched one eclipse from the cabin of a Concorde supersonic airliner, where he was able to remain within the window of totality for an astounding 74 minutes.
Liebenberg’s second eclipse, chronicled below, was Oct. 12, 1958 in the Pacific Ocean. His last one was March 9, 2016 aboard the cruise ship MS Vollendam off the coast of Indonesia.
All told, Liebenberg has spent almost three hours in totality, which surpasses anyone else in the world.
The upcoming Aug. 21, 2017 event over Clemson will mark Liebenberg’s 27th eclipse. He has also witnessed several other eclipses that were nearly – but not quite – in the path of totality.
Today is the second chronicle of all 26 of Liebenberg’s eclipse adventures on our Eclipse Over Clemson blog.
Please sit back and continue to enjoy this amazing adventure.
DEEP IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN
Eclipse No. 2: Oct. 12, 1958 Totality: 4 minutes, 9 seconds
Where: Pukapuka, a coral atoll in the northern group of the Cook Islands
Weather conditions: cloudy
PUKAPUKA, Pacific Ocean – My first eclipse was in the Midwestern United States. My second would be way out in the Pacific Ocean.
University of Wisconsin professor Julian Mack and I decided that I should write a proposal to the Office of Naval Research (ONR) requesting support for equipment and travel expenses. I also learned that the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colorado, and the Sacramento Peak Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico, were planning a major expedition with logistical support from the U.S. Navy. I sent the proposal to ONR and heard back that the office was no longer supporting the science of solar eclipses. But a new agency called the National Science Foundation was taking on that effort.
The NSF came through. Our trip was funded.
Mack paid an instrument maker, George Streander from Denmark, to flatten and polish the interferometer plates in our optical equipment. Streander also agreed to join our expedition. We had only a short time to build our equipment, including a heliostat with a mirror that was 10 inches in diameter. I designed everything and George made it. We worked all day until about midnight for many days to get the equipment ready, which we finally shipped by train to San Diego Naval Base, where our ship was to be docked. Jim Ring, a professor from England, also joined our team and turned out to be very helpful in setting up and tuning the interferometers that we would use on Pukapuka.
The ship that had been originally scheduled for us had arrived in port and the crew given leave, including the captain. But a seaman had inadvertently opened a seacock, which let seawater into the engine room and disabled the ship. The captain was removed and another ship, the Fort Defiance, was substituted. Its crew had just returned from an exercise and was expecting leave, so the crewmembers were not too happy about this assignment. Regardless, our delicate equipment was loaded onboard and secured. We were ready to set sail.
We stopped first in Hawaii to add more supplies, where we were joined by Lowell Thomas, one of the most renowned travel writers of the 20th century. Thomas would chronicle our adventure. We then set sail again.
As we neared the Equator, I experienced first-hand the Navy’s “line-crossing ceremony,” which commemorates a sailor’s first crossing of the Equator. Carpentry began to appear on deck. And on the day of crossing, the civilians were advised to not wear any Navy-type clothing, so that we could be sorted out for more lenient treatment. But we would still be required to participate. I was dunked, and my mouth and nose were splattered with ketchup and mustard. But I was not beaten badly as I passed the line of Shellbacks on my last journey as a pollywog. One of our party, Frank Orall, who had been in the Navy before joining the Sacramento Peak Observatory, wore a Navy cutoff and got a bit rougher treatment from the Shellbacks. Two sailors, who were apparently trying to escape the ordeal, were found in a hiding place. The Navy doesn’t take kindly to disobedience, so they were taken to an open area and blasted with fire hoses back and forth across the deck. Regardless of all the excitement, I still carry my official Navy card recognizing me as a Shellback – and I have a framed certificate as well.
After several days, we stopped at the island of Manihiki, where the government of New Zealand was located for the various island groups. We then sailed on to arrive at the Pukapuka atoll.
We went ashore. Seabees provided much help in pouring concrete for our instrument pier and in constructing the triangular-shaped enclosure I had designed and was preparing to construct. They also delivered the instrument crates, and we set about getting our equipment ready for testing. We would be on the island for about six weeks.
An island custom was to name a visitor after one of the native’s relatives. I became known as “Takio’s friend.” Takio and his wife invited me one night for dinner, and his wife and child welcomed me into their house, which was small but secure from wind and rain. The meal included native fish, poi from the taro plant root and canned sardines. This was an extravagance that I would have foregone, since it must have represented a large fraction of their annual income. I thanked them profusely, and before leaving the island I made sure that clothing, shoes and tools were left for Takio and his family.
The large expedition from the Sacramento Peak Observatory, led by Dr. Jack Evans, had developed a sophisticated set of instruments to capture the spectrum of the chromosphere during the brief second or two before totality and after totality. Theoretical work by Dr. Dick Thomas fitted chromospheric lines with a non-thermal equilibrium parameter that was of observational interest. A small group from the National Bureau of Standards was there to observe atmospheric response to the eclipse. And the Naval Research Laboratory launched six rockets during the eclipse that were equipped with UV spectrographs to record measurements above the Earth’s atmosphere.
We lived in a Quonset building constructed by Seabees. Mattresses on the floor and light covering were provided for all the civilians. The military had separate quarters. Food was provided military-style – served in a food line on a tray. The food was quite good with plenty of steaks from a grill. Water was supplied for drinking, and I set up a rain barrel to get water for washing and bathing. But most of our bathing was done during rain showers, out in the open.
Once the basics were set up, we began tuning the interferometers, taking some photographic plates with mercury lamp fringes and working on a routine to make use of the beam splitter to capture the FeXIV (530.28 nm), FeX (637.45 nm) and the CaXIV (569.45 nm) emission lines.
Eclipse day arrived and the weather did not look promising. On previous days, the sky had been very clear, but on eclipse day it was overcast. I insisted on carrying out our planned observations, but without significant results on any photographic plates. Though the trip had been adventurous, the eclipse itself turned out to be less than stellar.
We repacked our equipment and left gifts for the native islanders. The journey home was pleasant, with sun bathing on the deck and calm seas. I sunburned my foot so badly that it was painful to walk. We arrived back in Hawaii and then flew to the mainland, disappointed but not defeated.
Up next: Part 2, May 15