Network: A Net to catch the dark side of the moon

Can't get to Cornwall next year for the total solar eclipse? Never fear. You can watch it in safety on the Internet
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The Independent Culture
IN JUST under a year's time, the lights will go out across much of southern England. This will not be a premature manifestation of the millennium bug, but a total solar eclipse.

The "line of totality" for the eclipse on August 11 cuts across Cornwall, through northern France, Luxembourg, Budapest and on to Turkey, across Asia Minor and the Indian subcontinent. The last time a total eclipse was visible from Britain was in 1925; the next will be 2090. More than 3 million people headed to the North-east of England to witness the last phenomenon, and that was at a time when private cars were a rarity. The authorities in Cornwall are already gearing up for congestion and possibly, chaos. Roads will be closed, and there is talk of water shortages.

Travelling to Cornwall will not be the only way to witness the eclipse, however, if the efforts of a BT employee come to fruition. Gary Shainberg, who lives in the village of Porthleven - just a mile from the line of totality - is planning to broadcast the whole eclipse, which will last for two minutes and six seconds, over the Internet.

For more than a year now, Shainberg has been working on a website, http://www.total- eclipse.co.uk, originally planned as a commercial venture. The site is now being sponsored by BTnet, and will act as a technology showcase as well as providing services and background information for eclipse-watchers.

A basic site is already running, and the main site will be live by November. Initially, it will offer information about the eclipse, with vantage points and timings, an emergency accommodation directory, and a What, Where and When directory of local information. The site also has an official link to Nasa's website. The heart of the Total Eclipse site, though, will be the live pictures. Shainberg will capture events as they happen and broadcast them over the Web using three technologies. The simplest is a Web cam, which uses push technology to refresh the image four times a second. The Active Imaging camera is already on hand, focused on to the high street from the bedroom of his eldest son, Tom.

Live video will come on to the site from a digital video camera mounted on the roof of the Shainbergs' house. The camera will provide images both as RealVideo and using Microsoft Netshow, via a twin-processor Pentium II at Porthleven connected via a 192kbps Kilostream leased line, and linked through the Internet to a server at BT Labs at Martlesham Heath, in Suffolk.

As Shainberg points out, the whole site is based around tried-and-tested technology. The trick is to bring all the elements together in time for the eclipse. The search is still on for a suitable video-camera, as filming the eclipse needs a long telephoto lens.

Shainberg is also seeking permission to use a track from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon during the eclipse itself, when all that the cameras will show is blackness. By an unnerving coincidence, the track, which is called "Eclipse", lasts for precisely two minutes and six seconds.

After the event, the plans are to archive the footage as Quicktime movies, and add still images. BT plans to use part of the video as a screen saver.

Gary Shainberg is promoting the site as the "safe way to watch the eclipse". Looking directly at the sun is dangerous - the intense light can burn the retina of the eye - but watching on screen will be completely safe. For people who do want to watch, Total Eclipse will be selling disposable, protective sunglasses, and there will be advice on safe viewing on the site.

Shainberg readily confesses that he is not a die-hard astronomical enthusiast. It is more the chance to put the latest Internet technologies to the test that drives him. The greatest threat to the site is the weather. Cornwall is tipped as western Europe's best location, because the weather records for August are good. The best alternative location to view the site would be Turkey.

Interest in the eclipse is starting to grow rapidly, and Shainberg hopes that his site will make a real contribution to promoting one of England's most beautiful, but also economically disadvantaged areas. "I was looking for two things," he explains. "To showcase the technology and, originally, to make money out of it. That has changed with the sponsorship. But it is also about promoting the village, and the South-west."

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