Solar eclipse proves a sight to behold

Astronomy groups in Abu Dhabi and Dubai guide hundreds of observers with telescopes special glasses and water-bucket reflections.

Hundreds of people across the country caught a glimpse of the longest solar eclipse of the millennium yesterday, with the phenomenon visible for slightly more than three hours. Whether wearing "eclipse glasses", peering through powerful telescopes or using their own makeshift viewers from buckets of water, observers were able to witness the sight of the Moon casting a crescent-shaped shadow across the Sun. Up to 34 per cent of the Sun was obscured over the country. In parts of Africa and Asia, however, the annular eclipse was more dramatic as the moon passed directly in front of the Sun but did not completely obscure it, leaving a "ring of fire" visible around the edges. At its most complete, the eclipse lasted up to 11 minutes, eight seconds, a duration that will not occur again until the year 3043, astronomers said.

Astronomers said the Maldives was the best place to view the spectacle, which ran in a 300km track across central Africa, the Indian Ocean and eastern Asia, taking in Uganda, Kenya and Somalia before moving across Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and China. In Abu Dhabi, early risers were out and about before 9.15am, when the eclipse became visible in the UAE; the peak was reached around 10.45am. "That's incredible," Bettina Sargent said to her husband, Julian, as she took off a pair of black eclipse glasses, a gift from the Emirates Heritage Club's Amateur Astronomy League.

It was just after 10am and the Sargents were doing what they do every Friday: rollerblading on the Corniche. Behind Mrs Sargent, people queued up to take a peek through a seven-inch Meade telescope set up by the amateur astronomy group. Several Filipino engineers stopped to pose for a picture. "Maybe this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Arvin Penaojas, 28. "I don't know when this will happen again."

Hamid Hashtroodi, an Iranian, stood nearby. "It's my first time using these glasses," he said. "It was pretty amazing." Glenn Hesner, an American who works in finance, was cycling with wife and two children, Maria and Emma. "We didn't know it was happening," said Mr Hesner's wife, Sylvia Garbagni. "Now we're going to look through the telescope." The amateur astronomy group came into existence in 1996. Four working members organise events such as yesterday's, according to the director, Sakher Saif, a civil engineer.

For Mohamed al Salami, a member of the group and the chairman of the ADCO Astronomy Club, yesterday's event was a success, in part because so many children and families showed up. "Normally on Fridays we are at home," Mr al Salami said. "But today, because of this thing, we are here. You can see families here; children are interested. They learn about the sun and the moon in school, but when they see it through a telescope they are very excited."

For Mr al Salami, who works as a senior development and training coordinator at ADCO, astronomy has been a long-term interest. He helped found the ADCO club in 1991. In Dubai, about a hundred spectators congregated at the New World private school in Tawar in a gathering organised by the Dubai Astronomy Group. "Last time we had viewings across the city, so this time we decided to gather everyone together for one big event," said Hasan al Hariri, a spokesman for the group. "It went very well. We were very happy with the turnout."

The organisation had two telescopes, several pinhole cameras, and paper eclipse glasses for the crowd, which included students, astronomy enthusiasts and families. "I've always been interested in astronomy so I decided to come along," said David Collingswood, a 52-year-old engineer. "I was surprised by how clear the eclipse was. It was a great clear day and well worth coming for as it was a much bigger eclipse than the one in 2008."

Amy Harding, aged 8, who was watching the event through eclipse glasses, was glad to be there, too. "I like learning about the stars and planets," she said. "It's interesting to see."