Contact: Alan Hale, Southwest Institute for Space Research (505) 687-2075
Date: July 29, 1999
CLOUDCROFT, NEW MEXICO: Dr. Alan Hale, Director of the Southwest Institute for Space Research in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and known for his discovery of Comet Hale-Bopp which shone in the nighttime skies two years ago, is leading a small delegation of fellow scientists, students, and educators on an expedition to Iran to view the forthcoming total solar eclipse on August 11. The expedition leaves the United States on August 1 and will spend approximately two weeks traveling to various cities around Iran giving presentations and demonstrations on astronomy and space to a wide variety of audiences. The expedition plans to view the eclipse from the city of Esfahan, which has a clear-sky probability of 96%, the best weather prospects of any location along the eclipse path.
The delegation includes a diverse group of participants. Among these is Apollo 9 lunar module pilot Russell "Rusty" Schweickart. "This will be the fifth total total eclipse I've seen, and they are always exciting and unique," says Schweickart. "I've done scientific observations during eclipses, but a major part of the experience is getting to a great viewing location and meeting wonderful new people. No place could be better than Iran to meet these criteria!" Another participant is Stephanie Lester, a 16-year-old student and aspiring astronomer from Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, who began corresponding with Hale two years ago. "This is not only a wonderful opportunity to view the eclipse," notes Ms. Lester, "but a chance to experience a culture that is so different from our own."
Total solar eclipses, such as the one on August 11, provide rare and unique opportunities for obtaining astronomical observations that are not otherwise possible. Among the participants in the delegation are scientists working with the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) project, a joint NASA/ESA sun-studying spacecraft launched in late 1995, who hope to coordinate observations obtained by SOHO at the time of the eclipse with those they obtain from Iran. Dr. Hale plans to attempt observations of small comets that might be near the sun, which recent SOHO data indicates appear at the approximate rate of one every one to two weeks. "The phenomenal rate at which we are discovering sungrazing comets came as a great surprise," notes delegation participant Douglas Biesecker of SM&A Corporation and NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Observing one of these comets from the ground at the same time as observing it with SOHO will enhance our SOHO observations and improve our study of the comets." In addition to collaborating with Hale in observing any comets Biesecker will also be studying the structure and density of the solar corona -- the sun's hot, thin outer atmosphere -- during the eclipse.
Hale's group has been working with the Zirakzadeh Science Foundation in Tehran, a non-governmental, nonprofit organization committed to building science museums to help in improving science literacy throughout Iran. "Since I've been committed to improving science literacy here in the United States, it seemed a natural partnership to work with my counterparts who are engaged in the same activities in Iran," notes Hale. "Here at the Zirakzadeh Foundation we strive to get as many people as possible interested in science and technology. The occurrence of a total solar eclipse is an excellent opportunity for them to enjoy a beautiful natural phenomenon as well as think about all the science and math they have studied in school," remarks Mostafa Torabizadeh, Director of the Foundation, who adds "I think people's curiosity to see some scientists from America is no less than their interest in seeing the eclipse. We look forward to these wonderful events, both in the sky and on the ground." Torabizadeh has been responsible for arranging the venues for presentations by the delegation.
Contacts between Hale's group and the Zirakzadeh Foundation have been facilitated by Search for Common Ground, a Washington D.C. based nonprofit organization dedicated to conflict resolution. For over a year, Search for Common Ground has facilitated people-to-people exchanges between Iranians and Americans in such areas as wrestling, film, and philosophy, to create mutual good will and understanding between the peoples. "This eclipse provides a good opportunity to build bridges between Iranian and American scientists," comments John Marks, President of Search for Common Ground. "Not only will the scientific observations made during the eclipse add to the field of astronomy, but the scientists will have an opportunity to meet their counterparts and establish relationships that we expect will continue well beyond August 11."
The expedition plans to submit regular updates and images from their activities in Iran on a special eclipse page on the Southwest Institute's web site, which can be accessed at http://www.swisr.org/iraneclipse.html. Furthermore, America On Line -- the Virginia-based Internet service provider to more than 15 million subscribers worldwide -- will be hosting live chats and Q&A sessions with delegation members on the day of the eclipse and will be providing full coverage during the days leading up to the event. The sessions are scheduled to include Hale, Schweickart, Lester, and some of the SOHO scientists.
The Southwest Institute for Space Research is an incorporated 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to space research and astronomical and science education for all people. This trip is being made possible by sponsoring companies and organizations that support the goals of the Institute. Astronomical equipment is being provided in part by Meade Instruments Corporation of Irvine, California, and special "eclipse glasses" for distribution to Iranian citizens are being provided by Rainbow Symphony, Inc., of Reseda, California. Additional sponsors include Celestial Products, of Middleburg, Virginia. Organizations and individuals who wish to learn more about the activities of the Institute and become a partner with it in this and/or future science educational activities should contact Buddy Chambless, the Institute's financial development associate, at WChambless@aol.com.
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