On August 1, a total solar eclipse traversed Greenland, the Arctic Ocean, Russia, Mongolia, and China. Totality only lasted for about two minutes, but preparations took more than a year for an Exploratorium team that traveled to the edge of the Gobi Desert to webcast the event. In order to broadcast out of a remote location in China, they had to get past a number of difficulties. “There’s technical challenges and also political challenges that we’ve had to work through,” said APS member Rob Semper, Executive Associate Director of the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco.
The location they picked, in the town of Yiwu, in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwestern China, had the lowest average cloud cover along the eclipse path, and thus offered the best chance of seeing the eclipse. “We’ve put a lot of energy into making the arrangements, but it’s a sensitive time, of course,” said Semper. The Chinese government always requires permission for any live broadcast, but has been especially careful around the time of the Olympics.
“We’ve been working on the issue of securing permission because there haven’t been any live video broadcasts out of this part of China. In fact, there are rarely broadcasts out of China, even for a closed circuit project like this one,” said Semper before the trip.
Semper made several visits to the site in advance, making connections at the local, provincial, and national levels. Everything seemed to be on track, but as the date approached, the Chinese government began applying extra scrutiny, and additional negotiations were necessary. “This heightened concern has made things more difficult for us,” said Semper.
The Chinese government wasn’t objecting to the eclipse project per se, said Semper. In fact, it was planned as a collaborative project with the Chinese science television channel, which intended to use the Exploratorium’s imagery for educational purposes within the country. “So there’s a lot of excitement about our project, actually,” said Semper.
As a backup, the Exploratorium planned to send a secondary crew to broadcast the eclipse from Mongolia. The site, in the mountains of southwestern Mongolia, about 400 miles from the Chinese location, was even more difficult to travel to, and, with slightly greater cloud cover, offered a somewhat reduced probability of seeing the eclipse.
In addition to the political difficulties, traveling to the site itself with a film crew of twelve people and tons of special equipment was a challenge. “We do a large, broadcast quality television production, which is three cameras and really high quality telescopes connected to high quality video outputs,” said Semper. “Another challenge is this is a place without much in terms of support facilities or accommodations,” he said. To get there, the crew flew to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang region, then traveled by bus for more than 10 hours, with a police escort, to get to the remote village of Yiwu. The village set up a tent camp for the tens of thousands of people who descended on the area for the eclipse, coming from all over China and the world.
The Exploratorium’s mission was not cheap: though some of the equipment was donated, Semper estimates the total cost of the expedition and broadcast was on the order of $100,000.
Fortunately, the permission for the Chinese site did come through in time, and the broadcast went smoothly. A passing cloud briefly threatened to block views of the eclipse a few minutes before totality, but it passed in time, and the telescopes caught beautiful images. Semper, along with Exploratorium scientist Paul Doherty and NASA physicist Erik Christian, showed imagery of the sun and described the features visible during the eclipse.
The eclipse is certainly dramatic, but why would the Exploratorium team go through all of that trouble to get to a remote location for an event that lasts only a couple minutes? Because the broadcast attracts millions of viewers, and it’s a great chance to talk about science, says Semper. “People are just always intrigued by this event, and most people don’t get the chance to travel to see it,” he says.
The Exploratorium has broadcast the past five eclipses, and they have all been very popular. Hundreds of thousands of people watch the broadcast live on the web, and millions more view the archived version later. NASA TV also carries the broadcast, reaching millions of more viewers. The imagery is also used on television news programs. “So it’s actually a very large audience for this two minute event,” said Semper.