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Mitzi Adams: First solar eclipse of the millennium


Mitzi Adams is a NASA astronomer, currently assigned to the analysis of data from the Marshall Space Flight Center's vector magnetograph. In addition to her research activities, Ms. Adams is involved in education and public outreach. She observed the solar eclipse in Zambia on Thursday.

CNN moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Mitzi Adams, and welcome.

Mitzi Adams: Hello. It's nice to be here.

CNN moderator: Can you describe what happened in today's solar eclipse?

Mitzi Adams: The totality occurred about 3:09 in the afternoon (9:09 a.m. EDT), and as we approached totality, the temperature began to drop, the light level began to drop, people were more and more excited. Basically, we had a wonderful eclipse.


CNN moderator: Can you tell us a little more about the reaction of the crowd observing the eclipse?

Mitzi Adams: As totality approached, most people became more animated, more excited. I was actually trying to take photographs with a telescope. I know my pulse rate increased. You only have three minutes to get it. The folks who were only observing, or who had some duties to perform, were trying to be certain that their duties were performed. All in all, people were very excited, and are still excited, happy to have experienced the event. Truly, I think it's very difficult to express or to articulate what an eclipse feels like, how an eclipse is observed, because there are many things going on. The temperature drops, the light level drops, suddenly planets become visible in the middle of the day. Just prior to totality, we saw the planet Jupiter. There are many things going on. The idea of the sun completely going away, when it's not supposed to, is a very moving, awe-inspiring experience. The corona itself is very beautiful.

Question from chat room: Mitzi, can you tell us about any psychological effects NASA may be studying with respect to an eclipse?

Mitzi Adams: That is an interesting question. I'm not aware of any psychological effects that NASA is studying. I'm a solar scientist, so I'm only aware of the solar science that's being done. We tend to specialize, a bit too much, perhaps. However, I can say that of the individuals here who observed an eclipse for the first time, all were very, very moved.

CNN moderator: What are the most common misconceptions about eclipses?

Mitzi Adams: One of the most common that I've heard lately is that it's dangerous to be outside during an eclipse. Another is that it's dangerous to look at the sun during totality. At that time, it's safe, but only at that time.

CNN moderator: Many people had predicted this eclipse could be a disaster due to a lack of protective glasses. Was this a problem?

Mitzi Adams: Not that I'm aware of. I spoke to a group of boys, a boy's school, probably 400 or 500 boys. They were all very well informed about safety precautions.

Question from chat room: When was the last eclipse seen in Africa?

Mitzi Adams: There was one fairly recently, but I honestly can't remember exactly when. There was an historical eclipse when a tribe attempted to cross over the Zambezi River, and at that time the eclipse was fortunate, and interpreted as a celebration of their freedom.

Question from chat room: Ms. Adams, what more is there to learn by observing eclipses first hand?

Mitzi Adams: Traditionally, the only way to study the corona, the outer layer of the sun's atmosphere, was by viewing an eclipse. Now that we have space craft in orbit, we can create eclipses artificially. But there is a problem in doing this, because these eclipses focus on outer corona. Because of the incredible relationship between the moon's distance and size from the earth, we can study the inner corona during eclipses. So we can learn more about the corona itself, because we have spacecraft that show us the corona at larger distances from the sun, and we can combine that knowledge with observation from the earth.

Question from chat room: What did we learn from the corona of the sun?

Mitzi Adams: The corona of the sun very much resembled the corona of the sun in 1999 when I saw an eclipse from Romania. The shape of the corona reflects the fact that the sun is in its maximum phase of sunspot activity.

CNN moderator: Why is this an interesting time to be studying the Sun? Does it change much?

Mitzi Adams: The sun changes quite a bit. In fact, we're in a period of maximum sun spot activity, actually slightly past that. The corona changes its shape, depending on what phase of sunspot activity you're in. During maximum, the corona itself extends more or less completely circularly around the disk of the sun. When there are few sunspots, when we're a sunspot minimum, the corona looks more spiky. The sun does change quite a bit, because it rotates. The sunspots we see today will appear in a different area of the sun, because it's turning. There are some that we can't see today that will appear tomorrow, as those spots rotate into view.

Question from chat room: What type of measurements did you take during the eclipse?

Mitzi Adams: We were taking temperature measurements. I'm actually here as part of a group led by Professor Jay Pasachoff, from Williams College. They have actually taken temperature and humidity data as well. I was personally involved in temperature measurements, light level measurements, and topography of the corona.

Question from chat room: What determines the size of the "diamond ring" and how many times it is seen?

Mitzi Adams: The diamond ring can be seen twice, at the beginning and at the end of totality. The size is determined by the moon's craters. The size of the diamond ring would be determined by the amount of particulates in the earth's atmosphere.

Question from chat room: Is there a total eclipse scheduled to be viewable in North America any time soon?

Mitzi Adams: Well, I'm from the southeast of the US, and if I remember correctly, the next one is in 2019, or maybe it's 2017. But not very soon. But there will be an annular eclipse, which is almost total, but not quite, because the moon's distance is not the right amount away from the earth, so that the corona can be visible. It appears smaller than it does in a total eclipse. So, the sun is not completely covered. That will take place in December of this year. It's viewable from Costa Rica, for instance. But that's the closest for a while.

Question from chat room: Are there any lunar eclipses coming up soon? What is the difference between solar and lunar?

Mitzi Adams: The difference between a solar and a lunar eclipse is that a solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the earth and the sun. At that time, we'd say that we have a "new moon." So, at that time, the shadow of the moon is falling on the earth. For a lunar eclipse, the shadow of the earth is falling on the moon, and that would happen when the moon is full. So, a solar eclipse we would see during the day, and a lunar eclipse we'd see at night. I don't recall when the next lunar eclipse would be, but you could do a search for Fred Espenak, and he has a list of solar and lunar eclipses. You'd find quite a few eclipses listed there for the next fifty or sixty years. That would be both lunar and solar.

Question from chat room: How is it possible to predect when an eclipse will appear so far in advance?

Mitzi Adams: Scientists know very well how the earth and the moon move about the sun. Solar eclipses and lunar eclipses occur when the moon crosses what's called a node in its orbit. Sometimes the moon's orbit is slightly above the plane of the earth-sun orbit. Sometimes it's slightly below. The nodes are when the two line up exactly. These nodes are very easy to calculate.

CNN moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

Mitzi Adams: Anyone who can observe a total eclipse of the sun should do so. It's an event that will stay with you forever. We've had wonderful hosts here in Zambia.

CNN moderator: Thank you for joining us today.

Mitzi Adams: Good bye! Thanks for your interest. In the words of another of my colleagues... keep looking up!

Mitzi Adams joined the chat room via telephone from Zambia, and CNN provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Thursday, June 21, 2001, 11 a.m. EDT.

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