‘Travelling Stars’: Meet the eclipse chasers

Tuesday November 5 2013

‘Travelling Stars’: Meet the eclipse chasers

Members of the Stella Errante Association pose for a photo. The association has been in existence for 10 years. Photo by Faiswal Kasirye. 

By Christine W. Wanjala

The much awaited eclipse came. It was sublime, but then it went and it was left to all of us to wonder. Was it worth it? Was it worth the hype? Was the experience up to the expectations of the eager viewers? Did it surpass them?

I was especially eager to find out what one particular group of people, the Stella Errante Astronomical Association whom we had met earlier eagerly waiting the eclipse, would say.

They move from country to country to catch some eclipse action. I knew a good number of them had seen several eclipses in different countries and were also very expectant about this one.

We found them packing their suitcases at the far end of the designated parking lot with the satisfaction of people who have gone for a mission and succeeded.

“It was fantastic, amazing and there was an extra bonus. There was the best diamond ring I have ever seen. The diamond ring is quite common but this one lasted the longest,” said Marzio Lauto, a member of the association. He spoke through a translator and we could not quote him verbatim but the animation was unmistakable on his face.

Almost all at once they were trying to describe the phenomenon they had travelled so far to see, and the special things they saw and the pictures they took, and how it was a beautiful moment to share with the local people who turned out in great numbers. This was one of the best eclipses they have seen despite being short, at 19 seconds only. They feel their one year of preparation has paid off.

For Fabrizio Melandri this was the 10th total eclipse he has witnessed. “The first total eclipse I saw was in Mexico in 1991. I have been to China twice, Madagascar. I also saw one in northern Italy in Venice. Last November, I was in Australia for a total eclipse,” he says showing the equipment with which he travels, two suitcases full of the parts of the telescope.

Lauto has seen five total eclipses before this, all in the past five years. He counts the places on his fingers: “Mongolia, Siberia, China, Australia and Zambia.”

Some members like scientist Emmanuelle Pace were viewing for the first time. Gabrielle Cozzolino was seeing her second eclipse, 51 years after she saw her first one in Italy way back in 1962.

So what is so special about seeing eclipses over and over again that makes them travel thousands of kilometres not just once or twice in search of it?

For Massimo Corbisiero who has so far seen six total eclipses after this viewing in Uganda, the reason is simple. The eclipse is the most powerful scientific phenomenon visible from earth,” he says. But other than that, he says there are things the eclipse enables scientists to do – like measuring the diameter of the sun. Also, each eclipse confirms a theory that is yet to be proven but has been being tossed around for a while.

“The sun is indeed shrinking from comparisons over time, this is becoming more apparent, and this could mean the earth could be becoming colder,” says Corbisiero.

Asked how this is possible with all the talk about global warming and melting icecaps, he goes into a detailed explanation, the summary of which is that global warming is due to man’s activity, pollution and the lot and that the rate at which carbon emissions are hitting the atmosphere the earth should be much hotter than it is now were it not for the sun shrinking.

Paolo Perone says for him, viewing the eclipses has become an addiction. “It is like a drug, the more eclipse I see, the more I want to see,” he says in heavily accented English.

According to Lauto, Stella Errante which directly translated means “travelling star” brings together a mix of people, from scientists to amateurs, young old, women and men. This is reflected by the team we met in Pakwach.

For instance, Corbisiero heads the astronomy club in Campagna a region in Italy where the city of Naples is and discusses astronomy like a scientist is actually a banker. “Science is my passion but for a living I work in a bank,” he shares. Cozzolino is a surgeon while Lauto is a tours operator.

Melandri is a truck driver. “This is just a hobby”, he says, one he takes pretty seriously though, buying tickets, massive equipment any scientist would envy, and taking days off work.

There was one question I could not leave without asking. What is the source of the money to go on such jaunts across the world all for a few minutes or seconds worth of viewing?

“The association makes it a point to lower the cost. Other associations have a higher budget but we keep it low so we can interest more people,” says Lauto.

With time they have also found an added advantage of travelling cheap despite being more popular for eclipse and astronomy buffs. They are able to get a more real feel of the countries they visit.

“We get to experience culture of different places. And then there’s the fact that often, the tour operators offer a full package. We also experience nature in the different places we visit,” says Corbisiero.

The association which is around 10 years old has done intense travelling the past four to five years, and they have all been successful. “l feel there is an element of good luck with the eclipse,” says Lauto. He has the story to confirm it. He was involved in a car crash in Mongolia on his way to see an eclipse. The car crashed but there were no fatalities.

For a lot of people who turned up to view the eclipse, it was over when the sun started peeking again from behind the moon.

For this group it is not over, as long as the eclipse is still happening somewhere in the world. They will keep going. That there is little tangible they take from these experiences is of no matter. The pictures, being part of those observing the marvellous occurrence, and sharing the emotion of the moment with other viewers is what counts.

So does it make it worth spending all that money and time? “Definately! It is all very worth it. The emotional returns are higher than the investment!” says Lauto. The others agree nodding their heads almost in unison.

Their next destination as far eclipses are concerned is Norway. It will take place on March 20, 2015.

“The total eclipse will take two and a half minutes,” says Lauto. True eclipse chasers they are.

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