Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Eclipse 2017: Beginnings

When I started this blog, I planned to post images here, as I progressed through the hobby of astrophotography. A busy work schedule (not to mention an early-morning one) has kept me from imaging as often as I'd like during the last few years, but I'm hopeful that someday I'll have more images to put on this blog.

In the meantime, I want to record my experience of the Great American Eclipse of 2017. This will mostly be a travelogue, with a few images here and there. A few of them will be mine, but most of them will come from friends like Wes Chang, who has a nice gallery of images from the eclipse experience in Smith's Ferry, Idaho.

I've posted this story in four parts:

Beginnings (this post)
Eclipse Day

Although I didn't do any direct `imaging' of the eclipse, myself, lots of other people did. I gathered a set of links to my favorite eclipse images in a blog post, and you might enjoy checking out the pictures and video that were captured that day.

If you aren't familiar with the eclipse jargon that I use in these posts, you'll probably find this eclipse glossary helpful, from the American Astronomical Society.

The most important eclipse terms to know are:

C1 = "First Contact": The Moon just starts to cover up the bright part of the Sun, called the photosphere.

C2 = "Second Contact": This is the moment everyone's been waiting for! The Moon has just covered up ALL of the bright part of the Sun. Now the eclipse is total. An observer under a clear sky can see the fainter chromosphere and corona, which are the main parts of the Sun's atmosphere.

C3 = "Third Contact": The spectacular (but sad) moment when totality ends, and the blazingly bright photosphere is once again exposed.

C4 = "Fourth Contact": The Moon stops covering up the Sun entirely, and the eclipse is over. When's the next one? 😍



Lifelong interest in astronomy

     I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in astronomy. Although there might have been some `inciting incident' early in my childhood, I can't remember one.

Oddly enough, even though the Apollo moon missions all happened during my lifetime, and I've been a huge "Apollo fan" all my life, I was born just a bit too late to remember them! Not too many years before the 2017 eclipse, my stargazing buddies and I were comparing our earliest memories of space missions. Everyone but me could recall the Apollo era, and they all have memories of watching TV coverage of the missions to the Moon. Not me.

One of my pals was a little heartbroken when I said my earliest `space mission memory' was Skylab, which was launched in 1973, a few months before I turned 5 years old. I have no memory of watching Cernan and Schmitt (the last moonwalkers) in December 1972, for example. Oh well! Somehow, even though I missed the moon missions, events like Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz, Viking, and Voyager helped turn me into a lifelong space and astronomy enthusiast.

Jim Loudon and Astrofests

     One of my biggest influences in youth - and a direct inspiration for the 2017 eclipse chase - was a freelance lecturer named Jim Loudon. If, by chance, you happen to have lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the 1970s or 1980s, and if you were interested in space or astronomy at the time, you probably heard of Loudon.

(The January 13, 1987 issue of the Detroit Free Press ran an article about Loudon, not long before he died of a heart attack. A thumbnail image of it can be seen on the Freep's website, but the full article appears to be behind a paywall.)

From what I've gathered over the years, Jim Loudon had been a graduate student in astronomy or astrophysics at the U of M, but dropped out for some reason. Without apparently missing a beat, he reinvented himself as a `freelance space popularizer' and managed to support himself, probably quite modestly, by giving lectures, writing articles, and doing a small amount of mainstream (for the time) reporting. He was a correspondent for National Public Radio during the Viking Mars landings in 1976, and he famously learned to drive (and bought his first car) purely for the purpose of going from Michigan to Pasadena to cover the landings at JPL.

Around the same time - roughly the mid-1970s - Loudon had settled into a monthly routine of giving a free public lecture series in Ann Arbor, which he eventually called "Astrofests". On one Friday each month, he'd use a large lecture hall at the U of M to give a free lecture about some space topic. Typically he covered recent space missions, like the Voyager flybys of Jupiter and Saturn, or the early Shuttle missions.

It's hard to imagine in today's internet-connected world, but back then a Loudon lecture was your best bet for getting real, substantive information about such topics. NASA and JPL did a good job of disseminating information through their public affairs offices, but in a world without a world-wide web, it took a fair amount of personal initiative to gather the info. Loudon had learned how to do this really well, and he was a master at crafting clear (and highly detailed) presentations from these sources of information. He never falsely represented himself as anything but a freelance speaker and writer, but his encyclopedic knowledge and inexhaustible enthusiasm made you feel like you were hearing from all the experts in the field, all at once. To call him "Ann Arbor's Carl Sagan" wouldn't quite be right, since they had very different personalities. But as a shorthand for "enthusiastic space popularizer who really grabs your attention", that shorthand might do.

1984 eclipse and the Astrofest about it

     In the spring of 1984, astro-enthusiasts in the U.S. were anticipating an unusual solar eclipse. A very narrow eclipse path ran northeastward across Mexico and the southeastern United States. This eclipse was, technically, an annular one - the Sun's bright photosphere wouldn't be completely covered. As a result, the corona wouldn't be visible, and observers would have to use safe solar filters throughout, with no totality. The dark part of the Moon's shadow, the *umbra*, wouldn't quite touch the Earth's surface anywhere along the eclipse path. Its pointy tip would stay just above the Earth's surface, even at its point of closest approach.

However, the bright ring of visible photosphere would be so small that it wouldn't be unbroken - and so this was a "marginal annular" eclipse. Chasers who went to the centerline in places like Virginia might be able to photograph the chromosphere in between the arcs of bright photosphere - and indeed they did!

Jim Loudon was an eclipse chaser, having seen totality in places like Maine (1963) and Virginia (1970). In 1978 he lectured about the upcoming 1979 eclipse in the U.S. Naturally, he gave an Astrofest about the upcoming 1984 eclipse. I only have one cassette recording of an Astrofest, and it's of this one. Towards the end of his life, Loudon enlisted the services of a gentleman named Chris Breck, and cassettes were available of some of the Astrofests. I bought a set of tapes of this (March?) 1984 lecture; I wish I had recordings of all of Loudon's ouevre.

As might be expected, I got all pumped up about seeing eclipses after hearing Jim Loudon talk about them, and I immediately started counting down until the August 2017 eclipse. I couldn't wait to see the partial eclipse in 1984, and I managed to make the most of it. Loudon hadn't left us with any illusions about what we'd see. I knew from the Astrofest that a partial eclipse is nothing like a total one, and that if I was lucky, I'd just barely be able to discern a difference in the illumination around me, even at maximum eclipse. But it was an eclipse! I bought some Solar-Skreen material from Roger W. Tuthill, and sandwiched it between layers of styrofoam to make a filter for a zoom lens.

Seeing and photographing the 1984 partial eclipse

On the day, I must have convinced various teachers to let me go outside and photograph the eclipse. I recall setting up my family's Nikon FM camera on a short tripod, sitting cross-legged on the ground, and craning my neck to look through the viewfinder at the crescent Sun. I was pleased to have recorded some reasonably-well-focused images, even!

It was an enthralling day, and I vaguely remember holding forth at some length to my fellow students as the eclipse progressed. Most of all, I remember that around maximum eclipse, I strained and tried my best to see some noticeable diminution of the light. The obscuration was 79%, and so we were just able to make out a slight dimming, and what seemed like a slight change in the color of the light. I remember thinking it looked the tiniest bit greenish. It was satisfying to notice a slight dimming, although I wished and yearned so badly for totality! I assumed, rightly, that I wouldn't see totality until 2017. Even then, as a 10th-grader, I was looking forward to a day that would come 2 days after my 49th birthday.

It's so delightfully strange, now, to reflect BACK on my 49th birthday! And it was quite a good one. I was with friends, and we had a good old time talking about anything and everything on the deck of a pizza joint in Boise, Idaho. And we saw the eclipse! I wish I could go back and tell my 15-year-old self that everything would turn out okay.

Bad luck for a North American born in the late 1960s

If you are a North American, and if you're a member of the baby-bust generation born in the late 1960s, you've been rather out of luck for solar eclipses on your home continent. There was the winter eclipse of February 1979, with a path of totality rich in cloudy skies. And I was only 10 at the time. Then there was the great eclipse of 1991 - which I originally intended to see - but it required traveling to Hawaii or Baja California. Then essentially nothing, without expensive foreign travel, until 2017.

Getting into geology, and why I didn't go to the 1991 or 1994 eclipses

Although I entered college with the intention of studying physics, and eventually astrophysics, I found myself not feeling the love when I was a freshman. I cast about for another major, and after taking introductory geology on a lark, I fell in love with it. Books like John McPhee's "Basin and Range", and Colin Fletcher's "The Man Who Walked Through Time" cemented my decision to study geology. A junior-year spring-break trip to Death Valley caused me to fall in love with that region, and it became my heart's truest desire to do a dissertation project there.

A series of fortunate accidents and helpful mentors made it possible for me to do a senior thesis in Death Valley, and a Ph.D. dissertation in the nearby Panamint Mountains. Therein lie many a tale!

One of which is the partial eclipse of 1994. In a supreme irony, I was in the region of the partial eclipse (the Death Valley area) on the morning of the eclipse, rather than in the path of annularity - which included my hometown! My father was visiting me while I was doing field work, and we made pinholes with our crossed fingers to project images of the crescent Sun. Had I made a trip home, to Ann Arbor, I could have seen nearly 5 minutes of annularity, although my mom said it was cloudy that day, IIRC. As it was, we had roughly 70% obscuration under clear desert skies, about the same as I'd experienced 10 years earlier in Ann Arbor.

Looking back on it, the fact that I *didn't* think much about the eclipse, and didn't try to get into the path of annularity, is a testament to how deeply I was devoted to geology at the time. I was doing the field work for my dissertation, and I was in the middle of a grand adventure, wrapping up a four-month stint of field work in a beautiful mountain range. As precious as totality is, I wouldn't trade away those field work days for it. They were quite remarkable. However, having those experiences, and then *eventually* seeing totality... now we're talking! 😄


In the last years of the 20th century, and the first years of the 21st, I had finished school and was getting my career going. During a temporary teaching job at Occidental College, I read Andrew Chaikin's "A Man on the Moon", and found myself fascinated anew with the moon, and the stories of people like Lee Silver and Jack Schmitt. My interview for the job I currently hold took place over two days, and during that time I happened upon the Orion Telescopes and Binoculars store in Cupertino, CA. I bought a copy of Antonin Rukl's Atlas of the Moon, and I began to imagine that observing the moon was something I might do in my spare time. It wouldn't require terribly dark skies or a large telescope, and I envisioned quiet evenings in my new life, observing the Moon after a long day of teaching geology.

Early in 2001, on a lark, I bought a 125mm Meade GoTo telescope at a local electronics store, and used it to look at the Moon several times. About a year later, I took it to a local hiking trailhead to observe several planets in the evening sky.

I arrived back at the trailhead after a hike, ready to quickly set up the telescope, look at the planets, and then pack up and leave before the ranger rousted me out and locked up the parking lot. Imagine my surprise when I found a group of amateur astronomers there! And they had a permit to use the trailhead parking lot after dark! One of them let me look at the Moon, through a 155mm Astro-Physics refractor with a binoviewer and Zeiss Abbe-ortho eyepieces. It was a life-changing experience!

I became a devoted amateur astronomer, bought several telescopes over the next several years, and devoted a great deal of my free time to the hobby. In 2005 and 2006, I went to Coonabarabran, Australia with friends to observe the southern sky. Both trips had great weather, and I spent many happy hours with Omega Centauri, the central Milky Way (at the zenith!), 47 Tucanae, and the Magellanic Clouds. Truly magical times.

By then, I'd met many people in the large and active community of amateur astronomers in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Several of them were eclipse chasers, and they described going to exotic places to see totality. It's slightly curious that I didn't try to go to eclipses before 2017. After all, if I could make two trips to Australia, I could probably have made one trip to an eclipse. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I'd done that. Which eclipse would I have tried for? It would have been richly ironic if I'd gone to China in 2009 and been clouded out with everyone else. Yikes! As it was, the Australia trips were absolutely wonderful, and I had some incredible experiences under an amazing sky, both in the company of friends and in glorious solitude.

Getting the Swinburne degree and becoming an astronomy teacher

My heavy involvement in amateur astronomy had the rather extreme effect of inspiring me to try and add astronomy to my teaching duties. To make a long story very much shorter, I got a masters degree in Astronomy through the Swinburne Astronomy Online program, and started teaching it in 2010. I mostly teach astro these days, only teaching geology about once a year.

Lassen trips, starting in 2007

In 2007, a group of us started making a yearly pilgrimage to Lassen Volcanic National Park during the August new moon. We still rent a cabin each year, in a small town outside the park, and we observe from a parking lot high on the flank of Lassen Peak each night. Like the Australia trips, these jaunts have yielded some truly amazing night skies. And, by good fortune, the 10th anniversary trip happened to be the August 2017 new moon - the Great American Eclipse!

On to Buildup...