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A Ring of Fire Over Oman

Don't listen to anything I say. I must enter the center of fire. Fire is my child, but I must be consumed

and become fire.

⏤ Rumi

The Ring of Fire over the Arabian Sea

The annular solar eclipse of 2019 concluded the year of eclipses with a heart-pumping climax as if the universe wanted to send a message to eclipse chasers about who really is in charge in our solar system.

Source: NASA Eclipse Site, Fred Espenak.

The path of annularity would move across the Arabian Peninsula, beginning slightly before sunrise. Then cross the Arabian Seas to pass through Southern India. Further moving swiftly through the Bay of Bengal and across Indonesia, pass through the Philippines and exit somewhere over the Philippine Sea. There will be another annular solar eclipse in Oman on June 21st, 2020.

I chose Oman as my observing location as it was closest to Germany, where I would fly to for a family visit over New Year's Eve. Initially, I planned to set up camp with a guide along highway 31 in the path of annularity as it would promise a cloud-free view of the Ring of Fire. My guide then booked me for a location at the coast of Oman just South of Ghalat, where the Oman Astronomical Society and the Ministry of Tourism would set up their eclipse camp.

Map of Path of Annularity Through Oman

Source: Xavier Jubier.

Quick Science Lesson:

As the Moon orbits the Earth on an eccentric and tilted path, it sometimes is farther (Micromoon) and closer (Supermoon) to the Earth. An annular solar eclipse occurs when the Moon's is farther from Earth, perfectly aligned between the Sun and Earth, (syzygy) and the apparent diameter is smaller than the Sun's. The Moon blocks most of the Sun's light and causes the Sun to look like an annulus (Latin for ring) or popularly called "Ring of Fire." It is not safe to look at an annular eclipse without proper solar filters.

The observing site was 20°58’22” N 58°47’45”E, almost squarely on the centerline of annularity with a maximum eclipse time of just over 3 minutes. The eclipse camp was well set up with private tents for premium (I was camped just outside the perimeter) and a big community tent for dinner and prayers. At 6 pm on December 25th, there was a little presentation by the Oman Astronomical Society, and famous astrophotographer Babak Tafreshi gave a little talk: “You should have at least a 100mm lens to photograph the eclipse.” That’s when I experienced a little uneasiness as I had a 24-70mm lens, but my objective was to document the eclipse sequence, and hence I needed a short lens. Since I forgot to take off my solar filter during totality in July, I figured why not practice an eclipse sequence when I don’t have to worry about that.

The night at camp was amazingly windy. In fact, my guide said he has been there many times, and it has never been that stormy:

What evil symbolism was behind this weather disturbance? The wind surely must have moved all the clouds out of view's way. But then I woke up to this view early in the morning, right at sunrise:

If you have ever traveled to witness or photograph an eclipse or tried to photograph the night sky during a New Moon, this is your worst nightmare: clouds! And I am not talking about a patchy sky, I am talking about those low hanging, fluffy, field-of-view covering thick blanket clouds. I thought [expletive]. I travel all the way to Oman, had everything perfectly planned with a spot in the desert, and then I get signed up for the eclipse camp. The Oman Ministry of Tourism and Oman Astronomical Society surely would pick a place with a high probability of cloud free weather! The Persians filled the void of astronomical observations during the Dark Ages. They must have experience!

There I was, stuck, with the maximum eclipse about an hour away. My guide was perplexed as well. A few clouds at the coast for sure but not this! It was bewitched. We calculated the time to drive inland but there was just the desert driving west through the dunes with a 4x4, which meant going slow, and we might not move far enough to escape the clouds. Why did I not check the weather forecast? Somewhere on the ride through the desert and my being hypnotized by the immense beauty of Oman, all executive functions went on vacation. [EXPLETIVE!] We decided to stayed put. Never switch lanes in the grocery or in traffic on the interstate. You won't get ahead. I accepted the circumstances and was happy to experience whatever would come.

Half an hour to go to maximum eclipse

Well, things didn’t necessarily get better but what a beautiful scenery unfolded with the Sun hiding behind the clouds and the crepuscular rays lighting the Arabian Sea. This was sheer beauty. Nevertheless, when most people seem to be hopeless, what do they do? They pray. I asked my guide Abdullah, a devout Ibadi Muslim to perform a prayer to Allah. Thank him for the hospitality and kindness of the Omani people, for creating the desert, the seas, the heavens, and then ask him to just push the clouds away for a few minutes during maximum eclipse.

The clouds kept moving in and out of the path of the Sun and we were able to use our eclipse glasses to glimpse at moments of clarity of the eclipsed Sun. Abdullah had never in his life seen an eclipse and he was captivated! It is an exciting and soul touching process to see this celestial dance of Sun and Moon, like dervishes swirling to a millennia old tune.

Some moments I was able to take a snapshot with the eclipsing Sun but forget about documenting the sequence. And then, as if some witchcraft was performed, at the time of maximum eclipse the clouds moved away lasting tens of seconds.

Ring of Fire with Solar Filter

Cropped. Solar Filter | 70mm | ISO 1000| 1/160th.

We saw the perfectly concentric Ring of Fire. A truly spectacular moment! The clouds kept moving and I kept taking pictures with my solar filter off (Just practicing for the next total eclipse 😆). A few days later when I was sieving through my pictures I found this shot (a cropped version of the very first image):

Ring of Fire Behind Clouds

Cropped from the very first picture up top. 70mm | ISO 100| 1/200th.

The clouds acted like a solar filter. They were just the right density for Ring of Fire to appear. It couldn’t have been a more perfect setup by nature.

Sequence of Eclipse -- Ring of Fire to Finish

What if everything in life were perfect? What if the Omani customs agent wouldn’t have confiscated my drone and I would have taken shots of the great expansive desert? What if we wouldn’t have encountered three stranded cars in the desert and helped them and made new Omani friends at the camp? What if there would have been no wind and we had slept a restful sleep? What if there wouldn’t have been any clouds on eclipse day and I would have shot a perfect eclipse sequence, finally, and maybe made the APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day) and garnered accolades? What if the Universe would have been perfect and there wouldn’t have been any quantum fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation that created all matter? If everything would have been perfect, then my friends, I and you and we and this Earth would not exist. No one there to witness anything.

Thanks for reading. May you live with ease in this imperfect cosmos.

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