Shadowchasing: My Eclipse Story

Journal, Photography, Science Tech

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As my great uncle eloquently reminded me, “The best laid plans of mice and men, Oft times goes astray”. No, my eclipse trip was not an utter disappointment, it was merely… dramatic. But let me back up a bit.

Anderson, SC, August 21st – 8:00AM: I get up and eat breakfast, and glance out the widow gives me good news: the skies are blue in all directions.

I had waited for this event for a long time. I have been an avid stargazer and astronomer for several years, and few events are as greatly anticipated as a solar eclipse. A long time had passed since the last one; for many people, this was the first accessible  total solar eclipse in their lifetime. I am among this group.

Of course, one of the challenges I faced was how to get equipment to the path of totality. Mailing was simply out of the question due to cost and mail carriers’ (ahem) reputation handling delicate components. For the same reason, I wanted to avoid checking any equipment on a plane. This left me the challenge of making all my equipment carry-on friendly.

Anderson, SC, August 21st – 10:00AM: I arrive onsite at my observing location at my gracious and hospitable cousins’ house. We arrived there in South Carolina the day before. I had unloaded my equipment and assembled it at the house, and then had left to spend the night at my great aunt and uncle’s apartment 10 minutes away.

Since all my telescopes were 1). large and heavy and also 2). had too much focal length, I decided against these. For those unfamiliar with the term, too much focal length means too much magnification. I wanted the entire disk of the sun to fit in the field of view of my astronomy camera. Therefore, I set about finding a suitable optic to fill the need. After some experimentation with software, I determined that a 300mm focal length would work well. Not long thereafter, I bought from ebay an old, manual Nikon lens, a Nikkor 300mm F/4.5 ED IF AIS. Perfect. It was lightweight, had the right focal length, and decent optics.

For mounting, I had at my disposal my EQ-3 (Orion AstroView) equatorial mount. While the mount head was good, and more than adequate for the load I was asking of it with the 300mm Nikkor, the tripod was a no-go. It was too long, and also quite flimsy in it’s extruded aluminum and plastic construction. Solution: I fabricated some small tripod legs from a 2×4 board. Very solid, small, and portable. The only piece missing from the mounting was a way for it to track automatically, leading to the purchase of the Right Ascension motor for the mount. Excellent: a small, sturdy, tracking mount.

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Portable Eclipse Rig. Have equipment, will travel.

Anderson, SC, August 21st- 11:00AM: I gather all my equipment outside, aligning my mount with north as best as I can. The temperature is really rising, setting us up for a very hot southern day. To shield my computer, I use a cardboard box so I could see the screen, as well as keep the computer from overheating. Again, for those who may be unfamiliar, I use my computer to control my astronomy camera. This little camera has no buttons, no viewfinder, or external controls: it is merely a sensor with circuitry, which has to be controlled by a computer with software. It will output raw video for later processing.  Some puffy clouds floated lazily across the sky, but I’m fine with that. As long as they remain sparse and keep moving.

So I had the equipment that would fill the need. I also brought all my DSLR equipment- D600 body, with 14mm F/2.8, 28mm F/1.8, 50mm F/1.4, and 70-300mm F/4.5-5.6 lenses. I stuffed all my equipment into a carry-on bag and a camera bag, ready for the airport. There were only a few final obstacles between me and my destination: Airport security, and making sure my bags made it on the plane without them being selected for checked baggage due to full flights. Airport security was no problem (50+ pounds of glass and metal, no one blinks an eye…). Needless to say, everything made it safely.

Anderson, SC, August 21st- 1:08PM: First contact! Everyone celebrates the small bite out of the sun that we know to be the moon. After a few minutes of observing, we settle down for a while, eating lunch and cooling off in the shade. I keep an eye on my computer, which occasionally suffers through software glitches.

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2:00PM: Electric excitement builds in all of us as we approach the culmination of the event. We still have a little while to totality, but the temperature continues to drop noticeably. The sky begins to change- the hue didn’t exactly change, I think it is better described as merely having less luminance. However, a large cloud bank looms in the western hemisphere of the sky, and I begin to fear that it is moving eastward.

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Waiting for Totality. The sky’s luminance is beginning to decrease at this point

2:33PM: -Minutes to totality- The clouds obscure, and then reveal, the sun in a tense cycle. The western hemisphere of the sky is completely blocked. I desperately try to capture what I can as the sun goes behind clouds, and the landscape continues to darken.

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Minutes to Totality. Note that only half the sky is covered…

2:38PM: “Totality!” my friend shouts, and all the surroundings become dark. The temperature plummets. We, however, can see nothing: inopportune clouds blanket half the sky, including the now begun eclipse. Cicadas chirp, as if it were late evening. In desperation, I sit by my equipment, and take in the surroundings; Jupiter and stars are visible in the clear hemisphere. We continue to wait.

“There it is!” someone cried. I look up, and the clouds parted to show us the firey spectacle. I grab my binoculars and soak in the black orb and luminous corona. I point out to my family and friends the bright pink prominences on the limb. I hand the binoculars to my friends and desperately try to capture the scene; however, in the moment I made the wrong adjustments and ended up recording nothing.

2:40PM: I realize my mistake, but too late! Totality is ending, and I capture as many frames as I can. For everyone’s safety, I remind them that all safety filters must be worn again at this point. I feel, simultaneously, joy and defeat. I am happy that I got to see anything, but I regret not capturing it well. I came away with a little over 500 frames as totality ended (video clip above). For the next hour, clouds completely block the sun, after which they give way to a sunny afternoon and the last few stages of the eclipse.

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A Cloudy Totality. Image is a stack of frames from the video

Traffic greatly lengthened our journey back to Alabama, but I did not mind that much. I had great fun and made many memories on that trip. I now look forward to 2024, when another solar eclipse will visit the United States. Until then, the wait and the planning begin again. My family, too, now eagerly awaits the enticing shadow of the moon. The drama will begin again, and more memories will be made. If you missed totality on this one, don’t miss it again in seven years. Nowhere else in our solar system has God seen fit to provide a planet with a moon that spans the same angular diameter as our star, as seen from the planet. Go see it! You will have your own Eclipse Story to tell.

 

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