Bon Voyage and Happy Hunting

eclipseThere are those who think, “Oh cool, Eclipse.  Let’s all party and watch the {sun|moon} disappear for a few minutes.”  And then there are those who are serious about it.  While we all were celebrating the 4th of July (wherever we were), several friends of mine were busy getting themselves and a lot of provisions onto a plane to China in order to observe the upcoming solar eclipse in the eastern part of that country.  This is not the first eclipse for which they’ve traveled far and wide.  Two years ago March there was another solar eclipse in Southern Libya.  Do you what is in Southern Libya?  Sand.  Not much else.  That wasn’t the craziest place to travel.  In 2003, there was an eclipse over Antarctica.  Now the thing about Antarctica is that it’s not an easy place to stay.  And so what they did was charter a Boeing 747-400 from Quantas and flew it through the path of totality as fast as they could without the equipment being disturbed.

Why all the fuss?  What is so special about a lack of sun for a few minutes?  In the case of one of my friends, the answer lies in what’s near the sun.  He has devoted considerable effort to attempting to prove that volcanoid asteroids exist.  These little things come so close to the sun that on any normal day state of the art optics are unable to see them because of the sun’s rays.  And so, with the light turned off for a few minutes, one can scan the surrounds.

But if you thought this would be a purely scientific or humorous article, tough.  My friend brought with him a considerable amount of equipment with which to visualize the astroids, and some of it isn’t cheap, and some of it is custom made metal.  Knowing this, he went to the Department of Homeland Security to find out how to go about getting the equipment from here to China.  It took a Congresswoman to get DHS to meet with him in the first place, and then they provided him absolutely no guidance, saying that if the screener on duty (someone who is probably paid only a bit above minimum wage) decides an object doesn’t get on a plane, it doesn’t get on a plane.  There is no way to pre-clear anything.  And so he was told to ship the object through a known shipper.

The U.S. does recognize a distinction between known shippers and just the average Joe.  This is one of many circumstances where a positive reputation is required to get something done.  Now unless you’re going to buy your own airplane or cargo ship, you are going to use a shipper fo some sort, so why not use a known one?  Well, the story doesn’t end there.  In the passing the buck, each shipper is looking to limit their liability and hence want to know exactly who and what they are dealing with.  If you are an published astronomer as my friend is, you must put an extraordinary amount of effort into seeing that your goods arrive intact.

Personally, as someone who has had belongings stolen due to DHS policies I find all of this a bit rich.  If a baggage handler can rip off my stuff out of my bag and get it out of the airport, what’s to stop them from putting stuff in?

Think about it.

Anyway, I wish my friends on their trip happy hunting for objects that are extremely elusive, to the point where they might not actually exist.