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7.20.2009 China gears up for longest solar eclipse of the century

Hundreds of millions of people across China, India and Japan will witness the longest solar eclipse of the century on Wednesday.

Tourists and scientists are flocking to the best viewing spots from across the globe for up to six minutes and 39 seconds of darkness. Scientists also hope to use the eclipse to gather crucial data.

But the phenomenon is also bringing uncertainty and fear in parts of Asia, where some believe it will bring bad luck. China's cabinet, the state council, has ordered officials to dispel superstition by explaining the science behind the phenomenon.

Others have a more prosaic concern: bad weather threatens to mar the view for many in India and China.

The total eclipse will appear at dawn in India's Gulf of Khambhat – north of Mumbai – moving east across India, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

Its path across China will take in cities including Shanghai and pass across southern Japanese islands, with a last brief view from Nikumaroro Island in the South Pacific nation of Kiribati.

Many more people across the region will witness a partial eclipse.

"We'll have to wait a few hundred years for another opportunity to observe a solar eclipse that lasts this long, so it's a very special opportunity," Shao Zhenyi, an astronomer at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, told the Associated Press.

Scientists hope it will provide data to explain solar flares and other structures of the sun and why they erupt, said Alphonse C Sterling, a Nasa astrophysicist who will be watching from China.

Suzhou, a popular city in Jiangsu province, China, is preparing to receive 10,000 overseas tourists and 100,000 domestic visitors, local media reported.

In India hundreds of scientists are gathering at Taregana, a village in Bihar, because they believe it is the ideal spot for observation.

And hotels on the small southern Japanese island of Yakushima are booked out as people arrive for a two-day festival to celebrate the country's first total eclipse since 1963.

But in many countries eclipses have traditionally been seen as bad omens.

An an astrologer in Burma has predicted the event will trigger wars, instability and natural disasters, while in India some families are advising pregnant women to stay indoors in curtained rooms lest the sun's invisible rays harm the foetus. and, more prosaically, told police to prepare for potential problems such as road accidents.

China National Radio said it had received calls from people in Wenchuan county, Sichuan, the epicentre of last year's devastating earthquake, asking if the solar eclipse would cause another tremor.

In China, the state council warned that reduced visibility and falling temperatures might create panic. It urged scientists to use the media to explain the science behind the phenomenonInternet users posted comments warning it was a "very bad omen" and that criminals might take advantage of the darkness, but others urged them to be more rational.