'Blazing ring' eclipse races across Africa, India

A solar eclipse that reduced the sun to a blazing ring surrounding a sombre disk plunged parts of Africa and Asia into an eerie semi-darkness on Friday.

The spectacle, visible in a roughly 300km band running 12 900km across the globe, set a record for the longest annular eclipse at one point that will remain unbeaten for more than a thousand years.

An annular eclipse occurs when the moon passes directly in front of the sun but does not completely obscure it, thus leaving a ring—an annulus—of sunlight flaring around the lunar disk.

The moon’s shadow first struck the south-western tip of Chad and western Central African Republic at 5.14am GMT and then reached Uganda, Kenya and Somalia before racing across Bangladesh, India, Burma and China.

Local media in the affected areas issued warnings about the dangers of looking directly at the sun, but fascinated onlookers thronged streets to witness the celestial phenomenon.

“It’s getting interesting. Birds are singing. It’s actually getting cold here. It looks like night now,” said John Saitega, a 34-year-old father of six in Olte Tefi, 50km south of Nairobi.

In the southern Indian state of Kerala, astronomers from across the world gathered to watch the eclipse, which at its height was expected to last for three-and-a-half minutes.

Veteran eclipse chaser Daniel Fischer from German astronomy magazine Interstellarum picked a vantage spot on a cliff in Varkala, 62km north of the Keralan city of Thiruvananthapuram.

“I’m thrilled. My first eclipse was Indonesia in 1983. I can’t afford to miss the event,” said Fischer, who has witnessed 23 eclipses.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched three small rockets on Thursday and will fire a further five on Friday to study the effects of the event on the atmosphere.

“We will compare the data obtained on normal days with data during and immediately after the eclipse to study the difference,” project director P Ratnakar Rao said from Thiruvananthapuram.

The eclipse, which was followed live on Indian cable television, also temporarily put a halt to the world’s biggest religious gathering in northern India.

Temples in Haridwar, site of the Kumbh Mela—which sees millions of Hindus bathe in the holy river Ganges—were closed for the duration of the eclipse because the phenomenon is considered inauspicious, an organiser said.

In the Ugandan capital, Kampala, motorcycle taxi drivers stopped on street corners to share dark glasses and gaze up at the sky.

Some residents were afraid of the intensity of the light.

“Can’t it burn someone? You can’t even look direct because I’m fearing for my eyes. I’m fearing it can burn me,” said Angela Namukwaya, a shopkeeper in a Kampala suburb.

The duration of “annularity”—the time the moon is in front of the sun—- was 11 minutes, eight seconds at 7.06 amGMT, making it “the longest annular eclipse of the third Millennium”, according to Nasa.

Only on December 23 3043 will this record be beaten.—Sapa-AFP

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