Tuesday, July 21, 2009

China eagerly prepares for a rare total solar eclipse

China eagerly prepares for a rare total solar eclipse

Preparing for eclipse
Ajit Solanki / Associated Press
Visitors at Science City in Ahmadabad, India, try out solar goggles after a demonstration on how to safely watch a solar eclipse today.
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Authorities are on red alert against traffic, stampedes and H1N1, but still the atmosphere is festive. Some fliers will chase the moon's shadow; 20 couples will wed; others quietly plan to skip work.
By Joshua Frank
9:30 AM PDT, July 21, 2009
Reporting from Beijing -- In a popular Chinese legend, a giant named Kua Fu chased the fiery sun across the sky, hoping to bring about the end of a catastrophic drought. Though the hero dies in impassioned pursuit, the gods take notice of his inspired effort and punish the sun, forcing it farther from the Earth and drawing the calamitous weather to a close.

Now, Chinese media are ablaze with the mythical giant's name -- this time, to refer to amateur astronomers who have flocked to southern China for the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century. International and domestic tourists have descended on government-designated viewing spots such as Shanghai, Suzhou and Wuhan to witness the natural phenomenon.

The rare total eclipse will be visible through a swath of India and southern China on Wednesday morning (Chinese time).

When the eclipse hits Chengdu, Sichuan province, passengers on five specially chartered Sichuan Airlines flights will chase the moon's shadow on its trajectory across the southern part of the country, enveloped in darkness for more than half an hour before landing in Shanghai. The price is $200, and few spaces remain.

For thriftier sun chasers, flimsy "solar eclipse observation glasses" are being sold on the streets in southern China, as well as online. On Taobao.com, a marketplace website comparable to EBay, the glasses, which sell for roughly $1, were almost sold out.

Chinese authorities have adopted nighttime traffic regulations, and construction sites -- and even some amusement park rides -- will close in eclipse-affected cities. China Daily reported that local authorities would be on red alert, ready to prevent traffic jams and stampedes and vigilant against the spread of the H1N1 flu virus.

Still, neither security measures nor fears it may rain in many prime viewing cities have done much to hamper the festive atmosphere. In Shanghai, 20 couples are due to tie the knot as the moon meets the sun. The organizer of the weddings, a man surnamed Yu, told the Ximin News Agency that the celestial phenomenon would be "the perfect witness to the couples' happiness."

The 100-member Astronomy Club of Shanghai's Tongji University will be taking textbooks and telescopes to the streets around their campus, practicing what their president, 20-year-old Wen Zhesi, calls "sidewalk astronomy."

An Internet campaign was launched against the city's plan to turn on streetlights during the eclipse, claiming the lights would distract from viewing. Ultimately, they succeeded, persuading the Shanghai Greenery and Public Sanitation Bureau to keep the streets dark.

In neighboring Jiangsu province, companies have scheduled days off. Even in areas not directly affected by the eclipse, such as northwestern China's Gansu province, authorities have declared the day a holiday in some counties.

Members of many popular online forums, such as Sohu and Tianya, as well as dedicated astronomy sites, have been mischievously discussing skipping work to take in the eclipse. "When you see an eclipse," says Wen "you'll never forget it."

"It's an inspiring event. . . . You'll want to see it again."
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