The Great American Eclipse

By Richard Harvey

Pic 0 - The Great American Eclipse
Pic 0 – The Great American Eclipse

The solar eclipse on the 21st August 2017 was the first eclipse on mainland America since 1979, and the first eclipse since 1918 to travel completely across the American continent. Given the increases in population and the land mass concerned, (it crossed fourteen states, and the path of totality covered 14% of US soil), it’s been estimated that it was the most viewed eclipse in human history. It’s little wonder then that it was called ‘The Great American Eclipse’. (picture 0)

My eclipse trip started at Heathrow on the 18th August. At 6am that morning there was a beautiful clear sky that presented a thin crescent waning moon by Venus, (my camera was packed away, so I didn’t get a photo). With only three days to go before the eclipse, as I watched the moon rise outside the airport I pondered on how the crescent would get even thinner over the next few days, till the moon would seemingly vanish from the sky and be completely ‘backlit’. It does this every lunar month of course, but this particular month, the moon’s position in the sky meant that it would move directly in front of the sun at 1.34pm on Monday, and weather permitting, grant us one of the finest astronomical treats.

This was my third eclipse trip. I was in France in 1999 and was lucky enough to see totality through thin cloud, and in Turkey in 2006 I was even luckier, and had a fantastic view of the event in a cloudless sky from a beach on the south coast, where I saw the moon’s shadow race towards me across the Mediterranean. How would the great American Eclipse compare?
Let’s be honest, practical Astronomy can be such an irritating hobby. You can’t look forward to any upcoming astronomical event with any certainty, for fear of cloudiness. For months I’d been telling people “I’m going to America for a holiday. While I’m there, there’ll be an eclipse and if the sky’s clear I’ll be able to see it”. I never once told people “I’m going to America to see the eclipse”. That would be temping fate!

Pic 1 - Solar Eclipse road signs
Pic 1 – Solar Eclipse road signs

The eclipse viewing site was at Hopkinsville Kentucky, which was ‘the point of greatest eclipse’, promising almost two minutes forty seconds of totality. I’d booked the trip with Omega Holidays, with around forty other astronomers and space buffs from the UK. Travelling with us was professional astronomer Lee Sproats, from Green Witch telescopes. Lee was an excellent choice as an ‘in-house professional’ as he’s an extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic astronomer, and his tips on eclipse photography were certainly much appreciated by me.

We arrived in Tennessee on Saturday afternoon, and I was excited to see the road signs warning of eclipse queues. (Picture 1). I spent Saturday night bar-hopping in busy down town Nashville, and was also excited to see street vendors selling eclipse T-shirts, and signs outside venues advertising eclipse parties. The city was packed with revellers, many of them visiting for the eclipse, (Nashville was the largest city on the eclipse route).

Pic 2 - Crescent moon and Venus, from Wolverhampton bus station (Photo by Linda Manas)
Pic 2 – Crescent moon and Venus, from Wolverhampton bus station (Photo by Linda Manas)

On Sunday I met up with fellow Wolverhamptoner Linda Manas, who I knew from our society lectures, this was her third eclipse trip also. Although the other astronomers on the trip were very friendly and great travel-companions, it was especially nice to meet up with a familiar face from back home. I was pleased to see she’d captured the Crescent moon and Venus in her iPad, from Wolverhampton bus station, on the Friday morning. (picture 2).

Pic 3 - Eclipse souvenirs
Pic 3 – Eclipse souvenirs

Our Sunday night stop-over was in Clarksville, Kentucky. Even on the busy thoroughfare outside the hotel there were pop-up stalls selling eclipse souvenirs (picture 3). The closer we got to eclipse day, the more we allowed ourselves to get excited. The night before the eclipse, we met up for a lecture from Lee Sproats, (picture 4), and as I looked at the crowd, I noticed it was a similar sized crowd to our own Wolverhampton Astronomical Society meetings, (the next US eclipse is 2024. perhaps we could plan a society outing?).

Pic 4 - Lecture from Lee Sproats
Pic 4 – Lecture from Lee Sproats

The weather forecasts were giving increasingly good odds, and on eclipse morning, there were forty very excited amateur astronomers waking up under a glorious clear blue Kentucky sky.

Pic 5 - Venus over the hotel through the brightening dawn sky
Pic 5 – Venus over the hotel through the brightening dawn sky

Many of us hadn’t sleep very long that night, one astronomer told me “I can never sleep the night before an eclipse”. At 5am I was sitting outside the hotel listening to the crickets and watching Venus again, travel slowly over the hotel through the brightening dawn sky. (picture 5) Only ten days prior, the weather forecast had promised storms for Kentucky on the 21st, but apart from a few wispy clouds, it looked very promising indeed. Still, totality was eight hours away, and a lot can change in eight hours.

The viewing site was twenty minutes drive away. As with the UK eclipse in 1999, there had been lots of media warnings about severe traffic delays, so it was decided we’d leave the hotel at 7.30am. No-one minded. In fact, no-one would have minded if we’d have gone the day before and slept on the field – the whole purpose of our trip was the eclipse, and we were happy nothing was being left to chance. (One astronomer told me he’d had a hire car booked in Nashville for the last eighteen months, just in case of clouds at our viewing spot!).

Pic 6 - Hopkinsville convention centre
Pic 6 – Hopkinsville convention centre

The traffic warnings were, not surprisingly, over-zealous. I think we only saw four cars on the road that morning, and we arrived at the convention centre with loads of time to spare. Our group had a designated area to itself on a large field, with chairs provided, and inside the convention centre were bars, cafes, souvenir stands etc. It was quite perfect. At 36 degrees latitude, Hopkinsville has a sub-tropical climate, and at the height of summer, we were very grateful for the access to the air-conditioned building. (picture 6)

Pic 7 - Countdown to totality
Pic 7 – Countdown to totality

We were amongst the first there, but soon others arrived, and the field was soon buzzing with exited astronomy groups and school parties wandering round in eclipse glasses. All manner of telescopes and solar viewers were being set up and a digital sign gave an accurate countdown to totality. It was simply astronomy heaven! (picture 7)

First contact was at 11.54am. (picture 8) One of our tour members kindly lent me a solar filter for my camera, and I started taking photos of the partial phases. Eclipse astrophotography is a field of study in itself, which I’ll leave to the experts. I’m quite happy with getting average shots to show friends later, all I had with me was my Cannon 750DSLR with a 50mm zoom.

Cards were handed out with pins, so we could punch pin-holes in the card and project little eclipse crescents onto other cards, (these little touches were much appreciated, the Omega team really had thought of everything!). (picture 9)

Pic 8 - First contact at 11.54am
Pic 8 – First contact at 11.54am
Pic 9 - Projected eclipse crescents
Pic 9 – Projected eclipse crescents
Pic 10 - Watching the sun slowly disappear
Pic 10 – Watching the sun slowly disappear

Pic 11 - Thin crescent sun
Pic 11 – Thin crescent sun

For the next hour and a half we watched the sun slowly disappear, (picture 10). About ten minutes before totality, the light noticeably changed, and the field was bathed in a very subtle blue hue. Somehow, distances seemed strange. I remember this in Turkey in 2006, and I don’t know how else to describe it. I think it’s because the sun isn’t throwing shadows normally any more, and the as I looked round, things seemed somehow visually ‘claustrophobic’, that’s the best way I can describe it. It really is quite eerie.
I walked around the field filming on my phone, and I tried to give a commentary, but I was a little choked up and listening back, I sound a bit silly. The eclipse is quite an emotional event for many, especially after travelling many miles and spending so much money on the gamble of seeing it. When you’re minutes away from the eclipse, and there’s no clouds near enough to obscure the sun in time, you only then know 100% that you’re going to experience totality, and the relief and excitement that comes with that certainty can be quite affecting. The Sun shrank to a thin crescent. (picture 11)
I set my phone to ‘video’. Not so much to record the visual, but to capture the crowd’s reaction.
At 01.34pm the last direct rays of the sun vanished, shouts went up…
“It’s happening!”
“Filters off!”

And as people took their filters off their cameras and scopes and removed their eclipse glasses, the sky darkened suddenly and dramatically. There were loud cheers as at last, the moon completely covered the sun, and the solar corona started to grow in the darkened sky. And grow it does – I don’t know whether it’s a trick of the eyes, our light adaptation or something else, but I’ve never seen a film of the eclipse that shows the corona expand like it does when you see it in reality. And totality’s there, like a great cosmic jewel hanging in the sky, stunningly beautiful. (picture 12) And you kind of forget everything about adjusting camera settings and making calculated astronomical observations, because the sun’s just gone out before your eyes! and it’s night in the middle of the day! and there’s this glorious ring of fire in the sky with streamers reaching out into the darkness.

Pic 12 - Totality
Pic 12 – Totality

You prepare for an eclipse for years, and yet when it happens you’re stunned and surprised. Don’t ask me why, you’d need a psychologist to explain it.
I think it’s worth mentioning the apparent size too. The moon or sun can be obscured with a pencil held at arm’s length, but an eclipse is so much bigger than that. The sun’s corona means the object you’re looking at is at least twice as big.

As we stood under the moon’s shadow, on the horizon, was a false sunrise effect. It was the edge of the shadow of the eclipse path, and it was all around us; a bright band of blue sky on every horizon. If the path of totality is 70 miles, then the bright band of sky we were seeing as a strange sunrise/sunset, would be the part of the sky not in shadow, some 35 miles away, all around!
Venus shone over to the right of the eclipse, (the second time that day I’d seen it!) And to the left, less bright but still easily recognisable was Jupiter. The star Regulus was just to the left, and although I looked, I didn’t see Mars or Mercury, although others did. (In 2006 in Turkey, Mercury and Venus were easily spotted I remember).

Lee Sproats had given me some tips on camera settings. If the exposure’s too tong, you lose the prominences, if it’s shorter, you lose the corona. I experimented with different settings. A 500th of a second exposure revealed solar prominences, around the three-o-clock and five-o-clock positions. (picture 13)

And the diamond ring signalled the end of totality – but what a finish! It’s almost theatrical. The grand finale. Hundreds of people applauded and cheered all across the field, and totality was over. On the film I took I can hear me say to Linda “my hands are shaking!” (picture 14)

Pic 13 - A 1/500s exposure revealed solar prominences, around the three-o-clock and five-o-clock positions
Pic 13 – A 1/500s exposure revealed solar prominences, around the three-o-clock and five-o-clock positions
Pic 14 - The diamond ring
Pic 14 – The diamond ring

People started leaving, but the seasoned astronomers stayed until last contact. As people chatted and shared their experience, the overlying feeling was, the experience would be unexplainable to anyone who hasn’t seen an eclipse. And it’s a shame that sounds so elitist, but I’m afraid it’s true. This is why there’s ‘eclipse chasers’. They simply can’t get enough of them.

Back at the hotel we had a post eclipse lecture (which was more like an informal meeting to share our experiences), and a few beers after. The hotel staff had all watched the eclipse too (the hotel was in the path of totality – more excellent planning from the Omega team, even if the roads were blocked we’d have seen the eclipse). One hotel worker told us, in her southern drawl, how the eclipse was obviously a “sign from god”, reminding us were in definitely still in the bible belt!

And our wonderful eclipse day ended with a handful of tired astronomers propping up the hotel bar till the early hours of Tuesday morning, feeling rather fantastic about it all.

Pic 15 - Writing up my observation notes in Nashville airport
Pic 15 – Writing up my observation notes in Nashville airport

At the airport before the flight home later that day, I bought as many US newspapers I could. They all featured the eclipse on the front page, and I read them in Nashville airport whilst writing up my observation notes. (picture 15)
The flight home is always a trudge, but the trip still had one astronomical treat in store.

I had a window seat and during the overnight flight I looked out at the stars. Ursa Major was easily visible, and on the horizon, under Polaris (the North Star) was a faint glow, almost like a subtle sunrise. I watched it a while, not thinking much of it, till I realised that it grew higher underneath The North Star, Polaris. I could see the Aurora Borealis!

Pic 16 - Aurora Borealis from the plane
Pic 16 – Aurora Borealis from the plane

I looked around the plane and most of the astronomers were asleep, but luckily a very knowledgeable chap I’d been catting to on the trip was awake, and I asked him to take a look (I knew he’d had experience of the Northern Lights). He took one look and said “yes, that’s it”. My DSLR was in the overhead rack, so I took a 20 second exposure, (picture 16) and sure enough, there was a green hue. There were others in our party on a different flight, flying to Manchester instead of Heathrow, who saw streamers and some movement in the aurora. I assume because they were on a more northerly course then me, they had a better view. My photo shows the red lit wing of the plane, and the green glow of the aurora. What a fantastic extra astronomical treat to end the trip with!

I don’t know when I’ll stand in the moon’s shadow again, but I consider myself very lucky to have experienced three eclipses, and I’d urge anyone with an interest in astronomy to make the effort to see one if circumstances arise.