Witnessing Totality: The Great American Solar Eclipse

Departure: Roanoke, Va
August 20, 2017
9:30 PM

The journey began with the arrival of my friend, Cody, who was joining me on this pilgrimage to totality. We left my house and hopped on interstate 81, where we were greeted by a car from New Jersey flipping off a car driving slowly in the passing lane. The number of out of state and out of country plates heading south on 81 was a reminder of how popular and unique this event was.

IMG_2302Arrival: Madisonville, TN
August 21, 2017
2:35 AM

We chose Madisonville due first and foremost to its central location for totality and its low population and relative distance from the nearest interstate. Our hope was that these combinations would make it a little less cramped and easier to get out of than other surrounding areas. Our hotel was my nice and still fairly new Mazda 3 Hatchback parked at a Walmart. Other than a group of teenagers waking us around four in the morning, we slept alright considering it was a car parked at a Walmart.

As night turned to day, we awoke and drove to a Hardee’s for a nice breakfast with the locals. Driving through the cute downtown of Madinsonville, a sign said that the local library would be throwing an observing event. After parking at the library, Cody and I walked through downtown and enjoyed some coffee at a small shop.

By this time, a good number of people had started to arrive in Madisonville. Our chosen spot at the library ended up connecting us with some interesting couples, two of which had witnessed totality on separate occasions and one who had brought a solar telescope for observing the event prior to and after totality.

Start of Partial Eclipse:
1:04:16 PM

IMG_2327As the time approached, we began to look up at the sun wearing our ISO rated solar glasses, and right on schedule, a sliver of the Moon was visible blocking the extreme upper right corner of the Sun. This gradually grew as the minutes passed. Before long, a third and then half of the Sun was blocked, giving it the appearance of a crescent Moon. The sky very gradually grew darker, particularly at 20 minutes out from totality. The shadows of our bodies and hands were different, almost appearing soft and out of focus. 10 minutes or so out from totality, the birds began to chirp, and at 5 minutes out, crickets began to sing. The temperature appeared to be cooler, but it was mainly due to less radiant Sun hitting our skin. The surrounding environment became very similar in appearance to about 30 to 45 minutes after sunset or if a strong storm with cloud cover was overhead. The Sun now appeared as a slight pencil line in the sky. It then disappeared from the view of my solar glasses.

Totality:
2:32:54 PM to 2:35:32 PM

IMG_2347As soon as the Sun disappeared from view, I looked down at my apple watch and the time was exactly 2:32:54 PM. Hearing people cheering, I removed my glasses, looked up and where the Sun had been saw the disc of the Moon completely blocking out the Sun. There was a soft glow coming out from it’s sides and what appeared to be the corona spanning out much farther than I had anticipated. I started my stop watch a few seconds late so I could time when the totality would end. Looking around, there was an eerie 360 degree glow on the horizon appearing as though a sunset was occurring all around us. Venus and Regulus were the most visible stars to appear in the sky, with Venus off to the right and Regulus barely visible just off to the left of the Moon. The time passed quickly, and I looked down at my watch realizing we were coming up on the end of totality. I put on my glasses anticipating the Sun returning and at that time heard someone shout out “The Diamond!” I pulled down my glasses looked up briefly and saw a beautifully bright arc of light appear in the extreme upper right hand corner of the Moon’s disc. It appeared as though God had turned a bright floodlight on in that corner of the Moon. I was startled by this, not quite sure if it was safe for me to see and quickly brought up my glasses and began to see the sliver of the crescent Sun return!

The Voyage Home:
2:45 PM to 10:30 PM
It was an incredible event to experience, and the trip home was not as busy as we had feared with traffic. Next time, though, I think I’ll try to book a hotel instead of a Walmart.

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Bringing Detail to Jupiter and the Moon

In 2015, I detailed my “Small Steps into Astrophotography”. Since then, I have done little with imaging and processing. That is, until this week. I’ve returned to the complicated, yet rewarding, world of astrophotography. To start, I focused on two great targets for beginners, Jupiter and the Moon. Jupiter, which is near opposition, is as big as it will get in the night sky and the Moon is always a good choice for learning the basics of imaging.

Capturing Video
I began by holding my iPhone 6 over the eyepiece and captured about ten seconds of video for Jupiter and the Moon. The 1080p resolution of the iPhone does a good job at capturing the fine detail on these objects.

PreProcessing
Once the videos were captured, I had to find a program that could take my iPhone footage and convert it to a format that my photostacking software could work with. I chose to go with PIPP, Planetary Imaging PreProcessor.

Registax 6
Even though I’ve had some previous experience with Registax 6, I couldn’t remember much about it and had to look up some tutorials that explain the basics of the program. Through this Registax 6 Tutorial, I followed the steps outlined and turned my videos of the Moon and Jupiter into stacked images that brought out fine surface detail.

Jupiter, about halfway through the Registax 6 process.PhotoStacked Image, Pre Wavelets

Premiere Elements
To finish up with some additional adjustments to the lighting, sharpness and color hue, I used Adobe Premiere Elements to make some final enhancements.

The Final Results
Jupiter and two of it’s moons, Ganymede and Io.Jupiter, Registax, 3-16-16

The Moon, featuring Montes Apenninus.Montes Apeninus, Registax 3-16-16

Book Review: “A Man on the Moon”

This past summer, while reading Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life” a sudden thought came to me:

“I’d really like to read a book on the Apollo program.”

Maybe it was the patriotism, heroism and difficulty Washington experienced throughout his life that spurred these thoughts towards Apollo. Or, maybe I just think a lot about space. Either way, I was sure that when I finished the Washington biography, it would be on to the moon for my next read. A quick search of amazon.com revealed that there is no shortage of biographies and autobiographies detailing specific missions from the Apollo Era. Having read Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kruger’s “Lost Moon,” I was more interested in a single volume telling of the lunar landing saga from the tragedy of Apollo 1 to the triumphant conclusion of Apollo 17. It soon became clear that to satisfy this goal, Andrew Chaikin’s “A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts” was going to be my best bet.

Apollo 8 Earthrise
“Earth Rise”, Apollo 8

Chaikin begins with the launchpad fire of Apollo 1, giving detailed and graphic descriptions of this horrific accident that took the lives of three astronauts and nearly ended the Apollo program. The inner workings of NASA quickly become apparent early on in the book, from the selection process for the Astronauts to how Deke Slayton chose who would fly each mission. As Apollo 7, 8, 9 and 10 took significant steps towards the first moon landing, Chaikin displays the emotional impact that these missions and others took on the families of the astronauts. With, Apollo 11, 12, 13 and 14 the challenge from John F. Kennedy was met, exploration began to expand, NASA showed its true excellence through a “successful failure,” and the first American in space returned to flight. The most knowledge I gained came from the descriptions of the geologic training and exploration that occurred during the missions of Apollo 15, 16 and 17. The astronauts of these missions, became lunar geologist almost as much as they were pilots. While the scientific terms were sometimes beyond my understanding, the detail that Chaikin provides in this section shows the immense scientific discovery that occurred on the moon.

Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11

Alan Shepard, after being grounded for so many years due to an ear disorder, finally made it to the moon, looked up at the Earth and began to cry. Edgar Mitchell secretly attempted an ESP experiment with psychics on Earth as he headed towards the moon at over 25,000 mph. Buzz Aldrin, took communion on the moon after he and Neil Armstrong landed the Eagle at The Sea of Tranquility. These stories are the greatest strengths of the book and often come from the access Chaikin was granted for interviews with 23 of the 24 astronauts who traveled to the moon. Their insightful recollections and sometimes emotional reveals provide the heart to what could otherwise be a rote retelling of process and checklists akin to an Apollo flight plan.

The book ends with a look at the various impact this journey had on the astronauts who undertook it. Neil Armstrong largely receded from public life following his “small steps,” becoming a college professor. Buzz Aldrin, under the pressure and stress of the public eye, fell into manic depression and suffered from alcoholism. Gene Cernan, through his exuberant personality, did public speaking tours around the world telling of his experiences on the lunar surface. The impact of the Apollo program on these men is best displayed by an insightful quote from Al Bean. Bean, who became an artist after leaving NASA, said “I think that everyone who went to the moon came back more like they already were.”

“I’ve been there. Chaikin took me back.”

Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, wrote these words in praise of Andrew Chaikin. While reading through the challenges and triumphs of Apollo, I felt like I was right there with him.

Some Lunar Views and Spotting Saturn’s Cassini Divide

I love setting up a telescope with the Sun setting and the sky slowly transitioning from day to night. There is something exciting about planning what will be viewed and the anticipation of what is to come.

The night started out with some brief views of the crescent Moon. This is my favorite time to view the lunar surface. The shadows that are cast from the mountains and craters display incredible depth and make the Moon almost appear 3d though the eyepiece. Sadly, anything over half full and its surface becomes boringly flat, turning the Moon into a nuisance that does nothing more than spoil the view of deep sky objects with its light pollution.

Continuing into the evening, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Saturn was visible in the early nighttime sky. Easily, a favorite of mine and Lauren’s, its rings are now tilted to a point that will offer incredible views of the planet for years to come. Pushing the telescope up to 200 times magnification revealed the beautiful angle of its rings as well as the cassini divide that splits the rings themselves.

Holding up my iPhone to the eyepiece, I was able to take some pretty good video of the planet. The cassini divide is too thin to view in the video, but you can easily make out the divide between the rings and planet disc itself.

Starlog: May 25th & 26th, 2012

The Eagle Has Landed

A lot of amateur astronomers will complain about the Moon, saying that it is nothing but a bright nuisance getting in the way of Deep Sky observing.  Maybe its just me, but with the Moon being Earth’s nearest celestial body, I’ll take an up close study of the lunar craters, mountains and complex shadows over viewing faint fuzzies any night.

The Moon is best viewed when it is at half Moon or less, because any more brightness can wash out fine details.  Along with this, the most interesting part of the Moon to view is the terminator line where the shadow is cast on its surface.  The falling shadows on mountains and craters gives it a near 3d appearance that really pops out.  When viewing the Moon,  pretty much any telescope regardless of size will need a nice moon filter.   Mine is polarizing, meaning that I can twist it to provide various levels of light blocking, depending upon how bright the Moon is.  As mentioned before, this will help to fight off the glare, revealing more fine detailed lunar features along with saving those of us with larger telescopes from getting a head ache (seriously, it can get really bright).

Instead of just quickly roaming over the Moon like a typical observing session.  Tonight, I decided to do a detailed and preplanned search for a few locations.  I started by hunting down the Apollo lunar landing sights that were visible.  By jumping from mountain range to mountain range and crater to crater I was able to find the locations of Apollo’s 11, 15, 16 and 17.  Really analyzing the surface of the Moon to find the exact locations of the lunar landings was very rewarding.  Sadly, no detail of the crafts can come from my telescope, or any telescope for that matter, because of the limits of technology and the small size of the space crafts.  In fact, the smallest craters on the Moon that I can just barely make out in Plato’s crater are 3km large, or ruffly the size of my hometown Clifton Forge.

Star Log: July 19, 2010

The Apollo
Landing
Sights
(Left)





Apollo Landing Sights pictured up close by an orbiting Moon Satellite
(Below)

Star Log: March 20, 2010

After a late Friday night, I awoke at noon on Saturday and walked over for brunch to find around a hundred people standing outside of the Colket Center with two fire trucks near by.  Thankfully all was well, save for a minor fire in the kitchen area.  Lauren returned from her trip to Boston later in the day and we went on a nice walk to an antique store in downtown Salem.  Upon returning to the dorms, I came across an internet article about the International Space Station and thought it might be a good idea to see if  it would be flying over anytime soon.  Surprisingly, later that night at 8:12pm it would be making a 5 minute fly over from North West to East South East, making  tonight a perfect opportunity for my first attempt at viewing the ISS through a telescope!

International Space Station Fly Over:
Around 8:00pm, my friend Andy and I set up the telescope on the back quad of the college.  The sun was setting and we had spent about a half hour observing the Moon.  A few minutes before the fly over, two men from  a music group called Barefoot Truth, who were performing on campus that night, came over and asked what we were looking at.  They took some quick views of the Moon and were very interested in seeing the ISS.  Around 8:11 the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life appeared from the distance, it was Lauren, who was fashionably late, showing up just seconds before the Space Station.  8:12 swings around and right on schedule a dim star appeared right above the Colket Center sailing across the sky.  It began faint but became as bright as Venus it passed over head.  Now came the hard part, attempting to view in through the telescope.  It can be difficult enough to find and track a slow-moving planet, never mind a football field sized Space Station moving at 17,000 mph and orbiting 200 miles above the Earth.  After about 20 seconds of attempts,  it finally became visible and flew through the field of view in less than a second, looking like a very bright blur.  At this point there were now 5 people hanging around the telescope and all got at least a split second view of the space station through the eye piece while I tracked it through the finder scope.  As it continued to move across the sky one more attempt was given to actually try to keep it in the eye piece’s field of view for an extended period of time.  This was accomplished just as the Station was near its highest point in the sky and through tracking it for around 5 to 10 seconds the bright blur that had been viewed earlier turned into a detailed object.  At 48X magnification,  the pods in the middle where the astronauts are located were somewhat visible, but more amazingly and sharp were the two sets of solar panels on both sides of the Space Station.  The way is which the Station glowed with brightness, particularly the inner pods, along with the detail that was discerned from its solar panels truly made this one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had in astronomy.

Sketch of the ISS as viewed at 48X magnification:

Later in the night, Mars, Saturn and the Moon would be observed, but none of those objects could hold a candle to the couple of seconds spent viewing the Space Station with its inner pods and detailed solar panels.  Never before have I observed an object in space that has people working and living on it through a telescope.  As we looked up and saw the Space Station sailing across the night sky, I couldn’t help but wonder if one of the astronauts was looking down at us here on Earth.  Hundreds of thousands of people have seen the Space Station at night, whether they realized it or not.  My guess is that only a few thousand have observed it through a telescope.  After tonight you can add Lauren, Andy, two guys from Barefoot Truth (thanks for the free CD’s, by the way), a random college employee whose name I didn’t get and myself to that list.

Pictures of the Crescent Moon, taken on this night, complements of Lauren:

Star Log: March 19, 2010

A busy yet enjoyable week of student teaching made the warm weather and clear skies of Friday all the more welcoming.  With Lauren off on a trip to Boston presenting a scholarly journal essay on the Chicano movement and perfectly clear skies out, not observing would be near criminal negligence  (See: Section 4 paragraph 8 of the Law Code of the Commonwealth of Virginia).  Tonight would also be my first attempt  at sketching what was observed.  The goals being to attempt a sketch of the Moon and Mars as well as tracking the orbits of the Moons of Saturn throughout the night.

Lunar Observing:

Prior to this evening, little time had been spent viewing the moon through the XT8i.  With the Moon’s current phase being waxing crescent, tonight would be a perfect opportunity to explore the lunar surface.  It is best to observe the Moon when it is half full or less because details aren’t washed out by the brightness and long shadows cast on the surface help distinguish mountain ranges and craters.  Tonight proved this advice to be correct with the most fascinating parts of viewing being a specific region of craters right along the terminator, observed at 120 and 240X magnification, that had shadows moving down their sides giving a great field of depth to their make up.  With my 25mm eye piece putting the whole Moon back into view, the entire sphere of it was easily visible with detail from craters in the shaded region even coming through.  This is where my first sketch of the Moon comes into play.  The attempt was to capture the aspect that the Moon, while mostly shaded, was still visible as a whole sphere, giving it an almost 3d like quality.

Mars:

With the Moon moving towards the horizon, making viewing conditions less than ideal, Mars, high in the sky this time of year, became the next target on my hit list for the night.  Mars has been hit and miss for me over the past couple observations.  Some nights have revealed amazing land detail while others have left me underwhelmed.  Tonight was somewhere in the middle.  While Mars is still visible as a sphere, it is moving at such a fast rate away from Earth that observing land detail on it will be near impossible in the next couple months.  Tonight, Mars revealed its Southern Ice Cap as well as the always interesting Syrtis Major and Terra Meridian land features.  At 120x magnification, detail could be made concerning the ice cap with some slight hints of the two land features.  Moving up to 240x revealed a more blurry Mars but also split seconds of good seeing conditions that revealed Syrtis Major and Terra Meridian.

Saturn:

Viewing Saturn never grows old, but shaking things up every now and then never hurts either.  Tonight instead of just observing Saturn I decided to track her Moons.  The rings current appearance from Earth as a near straight line may make Saturn less appealing, but it makes tracking the Moons much more possible.  With two different observations broken up by watching Austin Power in Goldmember (Funny movie, can’t believe it came out 8 years ago, one of my first dates was to go see it in theaters.  Can’t say I saw much of it though, if you get what I’m saying.  Truth be told I saw all of it, including the end credits…but I digress)  The Moons were tracked as they changed positions, slightly in most cases but dramatic in others whose orbit has them closer to Saturn.  My first observation at 10:50pm revealed Titan, Rhe and Dione best viewed at 48X magnification.  The next sighting at 1:45am had Titan and Rhe in virtually the same position with Dione now gone and Tethys coming into view right above the rings of Saturn.

Up until the past couple nights, I had forgotten that it was possible to observe the night-time sky without having to dress like an Eskimo.  The warm weather and good sightings made this the longest and most enjoyable astronomical night I have ever had.  Sketching added another layer of enjoyment and documentation to the process and planning out what was going to be done before hand-made the night more productive as well.

Clear Skies All,
Michael