There are certain phenomenon in this universe that go way beyond science in the impression they leave on us.
I’ve never seen a full-blown eclipse before. I remember in seeing a partial eclipse in grade school. Being a physicist (by education), I know all the mechanics involved. I can sit and talk about the science of the event for days, but don’t worry, I won’t bore you with that.
I just want to talk a little bit about the experience that I had, and why, if you missed this one due to clouds or travel time, that you should make an effort to be there for the 2024 eclipse. I won’t harp on it, but it’s a curio worth seeing.
Finding a Viewing Spot
When my initial plans fell through for a viewing location, I was ready to drive out anywhere in the path of totality and set up on the side of the road. Two days before the eclipse, I found out that my uncle had made some plans to go check it out, and I asked if he would mind a couple extra scopes. My cousin’s kids would be with him, so I also got a chance to visit with them, which is awesome because I don’t see them much.
The spot was pretty secluded, just off of a levee road by the Mississippi river. The day before the eclipse, I checked all of my gear to make sure that it was ready. I have a heavy-duty tracking mount that will follow the celestial sphere as it rotates, a small ST80 scope, and an 8 inch Dobsonian. The mirrors on the big scope were checked for alignment, a frequent thing to look at if you own one. My camera was tested with the solar filter and the smaller scope, to set the ISO. I also double checked the white balance. Hint: direct sunlight is the setting you want for anything in the sky, day or night. At least that’s what usually works best for me.
I tested my battery pack, made sure the gears on the mount were working, and a couple other little things, like putting the right memory stick in the camera. I have a Sony a5000. Not the best camera in the world, but it does the trick for an amateur like myself.
The morning of the event, I left around 9am, after loading that big reflector into the truck. It weighs about 50 pounds with the base, and its’ a little clumsy. Everything else was packed up the night before. The two hour drive was pretty relaxed. People were out and about, heading toward their various viewing locations, but traffic really wasn’t that bad. I even saw some bikers (not motorcycles) with an eclipse picture on their back. As I drove into the totality zone, more signs appeared, announcing events of various sorts.
Because of the easy ride down back roads and through towns, I arrived pretty early, confirmed the GPS coordinates, and found my uncle’s little party. Everything was set up in plenty of time, and I even had time to drift-align my mount, a process where you take time to make certain that the mount is aimed perfectly at the celestial pole. It’s kind of complicated, especially in the daytime. There was a tiny bit of drift left, but the sun stayed easily in the camera frame for over half an hour. Focusing is also a little difficult, especially with bright objects (like the Sun).
I have filters for both scopes, but at totality, the filters come off. That’s the secret to taking good pictures and seeing what I saw. Eclipse glasses are great, but once totality arrives, it’s time to dump them and take a brief look for however long it lasts. Caution should be used, and you should be prepared ahead of time when you can look and when you can’t. This is why myself and many others didn’t mention this on social media. Someone will always take it the wrong way, and end up hurting their eyes.
We even got to check it out unfiltered through the big dob, which was amazing, but the real treat was looking up. The sun, the moon, and my bare eyes, unassisted by optics or filters, or other distractions. That was the best part of the whole experience. I only watched for about 20 seconds between camera stuff, and peeking through the dob, but that 20 seconds burned itself into my memory forever, without burning my eyes.
Sorry to make you wait for this part, but I was waiting for a couple hours before totality hit. Setup is important.
So, for those of you who didn’t get a shot at this (I know several of you are in the UK, Europe, and Australia), I will start by saying that I almost missed it. The camera developed a glitch immediately before it was time to rip the glass filter off the tube. You want to talk about panic. I literally had about 150 seconds to capture the moment, total. And then the camera develops an odd behavior. I pulled the filter, and the exposure adjustment stopped working. OMG!
I reset the camera, chanting, “c’mon, hurry up, hurry up.” Still not working. I unplugged the cable running to my remote button, and the adjustment returned. Thank God! I dropped it down to a tiny fraction of a second for the exposure time, and it was already in totality. I started snapping pictures. My button wasn’t properly tested, so instead of holding it down like I planned, each button press gave me two shots. I wasn’t going to take the time to reprogram the button. I made it work.
When I took the first images, I told my uncle that I was seeing the traces and shapes of the corona clearly in the viewfinder. He said that I could see it better if I looked up. I was so focused on getting good pictures that I nearly missed the experience.
I looked up, unfiltered and unaided. And what I saw stopped me cold. I swear, I didn’t take a breath for the next two minutes. The sky was dark like twilight, the cicadas were sounding off, and in that deep blue sky a ring of burning white flame shined in a way that’s hard to describe. One solid white ring, perfect as if it were traced with a white marker on a compass. Around it the hint of flames.
Being there, in that moment. The emotion is one I’ve never felt. I’ve posted about it being humbling, but not in the same way as staring at the Milky Way, or off into some distant galaxy, or finding a pulsar that’s halfway across the known universe. It was a spiritual humbling. The coolness of the air compared to only minutes before contributed to a spine tingle that reinforced how lucky I was to have a clear view of this event. That I was seeing something that so many others couldn’t see. That some of them would never see. That burning ring of fire will never be forgotten, and the overall impression was awe at exactly how precious a view it was, only lasting for a handful of seconds.
Being blessed with such an image was akin to holding some kind of mystical spirit in your fingertips, knowing that it would vanish a moment later.
I will, of course, try to capture that feeling in an image, but in this case the old proverb is true, you had to be there.
Another treat awaited. As I was snapping away at different brightness levels, trying to get the largest array of images possible, and hoping that some of them would turn out okay, and that everything would be in focus later, I heard, “Marty, you need to see this.”
My uncle was looking into the dob, and I hopped around to take a look. The tiny 320×200 viewfinder (I think that’s the size) on my camera didn’t show me a subtlety that one peak in the telescope revealed. Without any filter, and through the 28mm eyepiece, something appeared near the edge of the Moon’s outline. A pinkish purple glow. Tiny arches. I knew what it was, but I’d never seen it before, and going into this, I didn’t know it was possible to see them without special filters.
The picture doesn’t do it justice, but I’ll be working with the data I have from the camera to try and tease out the details a bit better, after I finish my writing for the day. Stories won’t wait on post processing.
The color is a tad off, and under the magnification and wide field of the dob, these looked huge and gorgeous. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen such vibrant colors looking through a scope. I could have stared at them all day, but the clock was ticking. I rushed back to my camera, dropped the shutter speed even more, and started collecting more data that wouldn’t blot them out in the brightness of the corona. Even the picture above required a bit of teasing to make them shine.
Now, these looked a bit bigger, and were easier to see in a wide-view scope. But for a general idea of how huge these are, the brightest glowing dot on the far right is about the size the earth would appear at this distance. Yes, they’re bloody huge. This was a real treat, and some of my astronomy buddies have commented on not being able to see them for some reason. I have to assume that the aperture of the dobsonian was a factor, but I’m not sure. They were kind of hard to miss when I looked.
Anyway, if you aren’t following me on twitter or Facebook (or G+) then you will probably be missing some of the images I’ll be posting as they roll out of my portable photo lab over the next few days. I’m hoping to get some really nice data out of these 100 frames, and some of the stuff is already posted, so check out my channels 😉
Thanks for reading, I know this was a little bit longer than my usual posts, but the even warrants it, I think.
PS, I’ll be posting Hi-Res eclipse shots here for download.