Anatomy of an Eclipse Trip – DAY FIVE

DAY FIVE – August 17, 2017

“Peter, look at that sky!”

It’s amazing how a few words can set the tone for the day. I had such a wonderful night last night; dinner with a dear friend, and then stargazing until 4:00 AM. And now I wake up to this; a mostly overcast sky. Adam Jones’ words haunt us as he wrote yesterday that today would be a weather model for eclipse day. At 9:00 AM, after almost a full five hours of sleep, we were having breakfast and contemplating the day. On eclipse day, the partial phase begins at 10:24:14 when the moon takes its first bite out of the solar disk. But today at that time the sky improved dramatically. Totality, the most important part of the eclipse, starts here at 11:45:42, and today, save for a few clouds on the horizon, the sky is blazingly clear and you would have some happy astronomers! Totality only lasts two minutes and fifteen seconds at our location, but it is an incredibly important two minutes and fifteen seconds! Gary and I took practice images of the Sun enjoying a beautiful sunspot group.
GAB Sunspot
However, within the next 30 minutes a cloud rolled in and eclipsed the Sun, and now at 12:38 we are in the yurt listening to the rain and hearing the crash of hail and the deep bass of thunder rumbling across Guernsey. It’s over in 20 minutes. I feel like I’m on a yoyo, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, more on this later as our 36 hour “eclipse chase” mark approaches.

Last night, Gary and I did some fine tuning to the mounts, and then some imaging to test our alignment. This morning, when I set the mount to automatically go to the Sun it did so perfectly- centered precisely in the camera field and eyepiece. Gary’s system behaved just as well. We’re ready.

Let’s talk about our plans. My main setup is actually two telescopes side by side. They are both the same instrument, a 65mm Astrotech refracting telescope. It is a small, but wonderful 4-element lens which gives really sharp images across the field of view. One of the telescopes was given to me as a gift from my friend David Fisherowski. The other is lent to me for the eclipse by my friend David Fisherowski. On my telescope I will have a Canon DSLR camera to take images of the eclipse. Through the other telescope I will have an eyepiece.

It is often said that you should just enjoy totality- it’s so short, just soak it in. I agree with that. I also agree with Gary that it’s great to bring back your own souvenir; your own image. And as educators we love those images so we can share it with our students. So my goal is to do both.

I plan on imaging totality with one telescope, while also taking a few moments to visually view the solar corona through the other telescope. That’s the plan…well the main part. I will also have another tripod setup with two cameras. This is the automatic station. One camera is a video with a wide field lens looking across the distant horizon to Laramie Peak.

The Moon’s Shadow will be coming from that direction and fast. I want to see if I can take a video of that event, and also the sky darkening and changing color along the horizon as we enter into totality. In the same frame will be a large thermometer so you can watch the temperature fall and rise accordingly. On the same tripod is another camera.

camera setup

This one is a DSLR that will be looking straight up at the zenith, and taking images every 5 seconds. The goal here is to make a time lapse movie showing the sky brightness changing about 5 minutes before, during, and after totality. It should also be able to pick up planets and bright stars in the daytime when the Moon blocks out the Sun. The object here is to let the cameras do the work, and turn them on 5 minutes before the main event and just let them run. I either get something or I don’t, but it’s not something I get to check during totality. There’s absolutely no time! Gary has brought along a high end 101mm TeleVue Refractor for imaging the eclipse. He will view the event through the camera, and naked eye, but not visually through the telescope. He will also have a DSLR camera on a tripod with a fisheye lens to catch the Moon’s shadow approaching and leaving our observing site with our group in it as well. Like my setup this will also be on automatic. Our settings however will be slightly different so we can hopefully cover our bases.

Combined we have seen 11 eclipses, and we still have tips and techniques to share with each other. Gary gave me a small open cardboard box to place over the viewing screen on the camera to enhance contrast and improve focusing the image. I had him turn his hat around to use the back flap to cover the camera to cut out even more light. With each eclipse there is a different setup due to where you have to go, what you can carry, and because technology has changed so much. For example, this is the first total solar eclipse where both of us are using DSLR cameras. Gary is an amazing astrophotographer, and I feel blessed to have his advice on imaging and processing.

We gave our first talk to the public this afternoon on the wonders of solar eclipses, and weather is very much a concern on their minds as well. Tonight we are getting ready to give our first star party to the public. We stare skyward as the clouds at the end of the day seem to match its beginning. My turn now,

“Gary, take a look at that sky.”