Modern astronomy is always an adventure, but it's seldom a dangerous one. That hasn't always been the case, though. Consider an expedition to view a solar eclipse that took place 150 years ago today.
The small group was headed by Lieutenant James Gillis of the United States Navy. He'd spent about two decades both studying the night sky and putting it to practical use for navigation.
At the time, eclipses offered the only chance to see the Sun's corona -- a ghostly light that becomes visible when the Sun itself disappears behind the Moon. Today, we know that the corona is the Sun's extended outer atmosphere. But in the 1800s, its nature was still a mystery.
Gillis's party planned to watch the eclipse from Olmos, a village in Peru. But the trek across country was wretched: temperatures were scorching, fresh water was scarce, and the trails ranged from inconvenient to downright dangerous. Gillis himself became seriously ill. He developed a high fever and crippling headaches, and couldn't eat for days. He felt so miserable, in fact, that he hoped that clouds would cover the Sun so he wouldn't have to try to observe the eclipse.
But on the morning of the eclipse -- September 7th, 1858 -- Gillis was much improved. There were clouds that day -- but they left enough of a hole to view the entire eclipse.
So, for precisely one minute, Gillis could enjoy the majestic view of an eclipse -- and forget the miserable journey.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
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