My Moment of Totality

by Tom Hammell

For 2 minutes 15 seconds I was one with the universe and understood all its mysteries…at least that is how I felt during the total eclipse on August 21. Maybe this was just the feeling of joy of seeing the eclipse after a long flight, some even longer drives and little sleep in the previous couple of days. Although most eclipse chasers picked a town to be at months before the eclipse day I kept my plans flexible so that I could adjust to the ever changing weather forecast to make sure I had a 100% clear sky on eclipse day.

On the Friday before the eclipse I flew to Denver. The western part of the US offered the best possibility of clear weather. From Denver I could get 1000 miles east or west, in two days, along the path of the eclipse. On Saturday I checked the eclipse weather forecast. There was a 70% chance of clear skies in Casper Wyoming, 80% in Rexburg Idaho, and 85% in Weiser Idaho. So to maximize our chances of having a clear sky for the eclipse we spend 2 days driving 800+ miles to Boise Idaho by the border with Oregon.

Monday, the day of the eclipse, we get up at 4am, to get ahead of any crowds or traffic. We drive north just over 60 miles to a town called Smith’s Ferry based on the advice of a local man in Boise. Smith’s Ferry, he said, should be less crowded than the other towns in the area which are already over flowing with eclipse watchers. It is also on the center line of the eclipse so it will give us the most amount of totality for this area. The less crowed claim proves to be correct as we pull into a mostly empty grass field by the Payette river at 6am. We are able to get a spot along the river with a clear view to the east and south. Next to us two astronomers from Sweden pull in. The first thing they do is to plant a set of Swedish flags in front of their car to mark out where they plan to set up their equipment. They tell me that they are claiming that land for Sweden. When I reminded them that this is already sovereign US territory they laugh and say don’t worry you can have it back at the end of the day. We were now in the company of some fun fellow astronomers which was good.

After parking and getting to know the people around us we set up our equipment. I have an iOptron Smartstar Cube-G R80 This is an inexpensive and very compact GOTO telescope with a built-in GPS. It was very easy to fit in my carry on luggage. The telescope itself is a 80mm, f/5 achromatic refractor. This is a wide field instrument and is perfect for observing the full disks of the Sun and Moon. This scope worked flawlessly for the 3 plus hours of the eclipse and I was very impress with the performance not only of the GOTO system but of the optics of the scope itself.

For taking pictures of the eclipse I used an IPod Touch which has a 5 MP camera and just used the built in Camera App. I made a home made jig that attached it to the eye piece to align it and keep it steady when taking pictures. This is a very portable and simple set up that with a little practice can take very good photos.

With my solar filter on the telescope I took a couple of test photos to get a full disk image of the sun. It had some interesting sun spots on it and made a good picture.

At 10:11am I saw the shadow of the moon start to encroach on the sun and knew it was only a matter of time before I would see my first total eclipse.

The excitement kept building as the eclipse progressed. I had a constant stream of people coming over for a look through the telescope. I enjoyed explaining what they were seeing and sharing their delight at seeing the eclipse.
I took pictures every 10-15 mins to document the progress of the Moon passing in front of the Sun. About 20 mins before totality I noticed it getting colder and darker. It was really weird to see it getting darker as the Sun was rising. You might think it was like the twilight after a sun set but it felt different than that some how. In the next 15 minutes the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees and the sky went from sunny to a bright twilight.

As the totality approached I connected my IPod Touch to the telescope and made sure the focus was good. I also a had Cannon power shot point and shot camera set up on a tripod to take a wide angle view of the eclipse. This camera has a couple of different manual modes. I chose shutter speed priority mode and set it for ¼ secs shutter speed hoping it would capture something.

You can somehow feel when the totality is about to occur and as it approached the crowd started to yell and clap. When the Moon finally covered the Sun at 11:26 am everybody screamed and cheered. I quickly started taking pictures through the telescope which was easy as all I had to do was push the shutter button on the IPod Touch. I took one picture with my Cannon camera then gave up on it as it didn’t look like the exposure was set correctly and I didn’t want to waste any precious time playing with shutter speeds. (Next time I will have a camera that can do bracketed exposures)

Anybody who has seen an eclipse will tell you it is important in the moments of totality to not get too caught up trying to get the perfect picture and to just relax and watch the totality with your naked eyes. As this article explains, the human eye can see and put together multiple exposures and wavelengths together in a way a camera can’t. Although I got some great pictures, the actual view I saw was much different. The corona I saw with my naked eyes was bigger and more complex than the pictures. The color of the sky and corona were also a lot different. Some people have described the light thrown off by the corona like the light of the full moon but to me it looked brighter than a full moon without throwing off enough light to cast shadows like moonlight does.

As totality continued I stayed by the telescope adjusting the exposure of the IPod Touch and took a picture every 15 to 20 seconds. Since I had practiced so much before the trip I could do it with out really taking my eyes off the sky. This let me just enjoy the moment and focus on looking at the totality with my naked eyes. It was also fun identifying the planets and stars I could see. It was a glorious 2 mins and 15 seconds that can not be described.

The totality was visually and intellectually beautiful but the thing that surprised me the most was the emotional impact of the moment. The people around us that we had been hanging out with for the past few hours felt like family and when the totality occurred I could feel the joy and happiness of our collective group. When I said I felt connected to the universe at the beginning of this article I not only meant I felt connected to the sun, moon and earth but also felt connected to the people around me. I know it is a feeling I will have with me every time I think of this moment.

At the end of the totality there were more cheers and high fives. We watched the end of the eclipse as we digested the experience. It was definitely worth the trouble and expense to see it and I now know why people travel all over the world to see an eclipse.

I am very happy with the way my pictures turned out. I got a decent shot of the bright corona.

I managed to get a picture of one of the three solar flares that were coming off the Sun at this time.

And because of pure luck in timing I got a picture of the diamond ring.

Even my wide angle shot came out pretty good. The corona is over exposed and I wish I could have captured more of the stars I could see with the naked eye but ¼ second exposure ended up being a good compromise.

I am not a professional photographer or have the equipment to do real astrophotography but think my simple set up did a pretty good job of getting pictures of the eclipse. For my next eclipse (and I’m already thinking about April 8, 2024) I will probably change my set up a little. My iOptron Smartstar Cube-G R80 was the perfect scope for watching the eclipse. For taking pictures, through the telescope, I may either get a better camera or a better app so that I can take a wider range of exposures and number of photos. This will allow me to stack and process them to improve the quality of the pictures. Lastly and most importantly I will bring along some cold beer so that I can celebrate with my fellow eclipse watchers to enjoy the moment even more.

For more of Tom Hammell’s photos click here.

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This entry was posted in September 2017, Sidereal Times and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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