Eclipse Day, August 21, 2017

Brian Ottum composite image 21077685_723036411231224_4553820105859167058_n
This photo, by Brian Ottum, matches my memory of what the eclipse looked like.

It has taken a week to catch up on a lot of neglected chores (like sleep), but now I am ready to tell the story!

Summary:  The experience of the eclipse was worth four days of driving!

We had options to go to Missouri, Nebraska, or Tennessee.  Based on the weather forecasts, we chose Lebanon, Tennessee.  We arrived on Sunday, and searched for good places to watch the eclipse.  The Cedars of Lebanon State Park looked good, but I was apprehensive that the viewing area would not be big enough for the expected crowds of people.

Early in the morning of eclipse day, my daughter and I returned to the park, and claimed a spot in the open field. It turned out that there was plenty of room for everyone.  We were joined by a fellow-member of my astronomy club with some friends.

The Ball Field at the Cedars of Lebanon State Park was not at all crowded.

We wanted clear skies, and we got them!  The Sun was high in the sky, and the air was hot and humid. Fortunately, we had two extra camera tripods and two umbrellas. We fastened the umbrellas to the tripods with hose clamps and duct tape, and positioned them near our chairs so that we had some relief from the scorching sunshine.

After a full day of clear skies, banks of clouds moved in, and covered the Sun at the start of the partial eclipse.  Thankfully, the clouds left and did not come back.

Camera Bar 20170821_112445
Here I am with my 5-camera monstrosity.  Shortly afterwards, it was abandoned.

I had a grand plan to take videos and still shots of the eclipse, using 5 cameras mounted on a single tripod.  I had tried out this gadget at home, and was successful in managing it. However, on eclipse day, I found that it was impossible to aim it high enough to capture the Sun, and I wasn’t able to keep it balanced.

After trying several fixes, I realized that we were half way into the partial eclipse, and I hadn’t looked at the Sun!  So, I set some priorities by giving up the eclipse photography.

Giving up on the photography was a great relief.  I was also able to be more sociable, and talk to the people around me.  And, I was able to enjoy the eclipse!

Time passed quickly, and I noticed that the heat of the Sun was no longer bothersome.  The remaining sunshine was dim, but didn’t have the orange cast which goes with sunset.  Everything looked a bit gray.

2 minutes before totality, brightened IMG_0505
Two minutes before totality, an unusual kind of darkness covered us.

I had a plan to watch the ground for the shadow bands, which are very subtle ripples which often appear just before and after totality.  However, when the coverage of the Sun was in its last stages, I forgot those plans. My entire focus was on the long awaited total eclipse, which was about to happen.

Through the eclipse glasses, I watched the Sun shrink rapidly.  When there was nothing more to see, it was time to put the glasses aside.  I will try to describe what I saw: The sky was a dark grayish blue, which was brighter gray near the Sun.  The body of the Sun was a round black circle.  The corona was quite a bit larger than the disk of the Sun.  Its width was irregular, and was widest on the lower right.  At first look, a red stream protruded from the bottom of the black disk.  Its length was about 1/16 of a sun diameter, and was visible without magnification.

I came to my senses and remembered that I had brought a pair of 7 x 50 binoculars to use during totality.  Because they didn’t have solar filters, I had hidden them for safety.  I scrambled in the dark, and found them.  The view of the Sun was better with magnification, but the red streamer appeared smaller.

Toward the end of totality, the red stream had changed appearance again.  Someone nearby said that this object was a solar flare.  I need to learn more about this.  I didn’t think that solar features changed so rapidly over a period of 2 – ½ minutes.  It is possible that the changes were in my perception, rather than reality.

Although stars and planets were visible during totality, I was not interested in viewing them on eclipse day.  I have the rest of my life to do that!  Venus, however, forced itself on me.  Because it was so close to the Sun and so high in the sky, it was annoyingly bright.  I had never seen Venus so bright.  Curiously, I remember the position of Venus as directly above the Sun in the sky.  Later, I checked the position of Venus on two different planetarium apps.  They both show Venus to the right, and slightly higher than the Sun.  I think that the apps were right, and the observer was excited.

The 2 minutes and 20 seconds of totality passed quickly, and a tiny sliver of the Sun lit up our area again.  I was amazed at how much light comes from the Sun even when it is 99% covered.  In a few seconds, lighting had changed from a very deep twilight to an early twilight, and we had no trouble seeing ourselves and our surroundings.

Our crowd was very calm, compared to ones I had watched on videos.  We all broke out with a spontaneous cheer at the start of totality, and another applause at the return of the Sun.

I had no regrets that I dropped the idea of photographing the eclipse, because I was planning to take a series of shots with a manual single-lens-reflex camera.  It is unlikely that I would have had enough alertness to make the settings and shoot the pictures.  I did remember to make movies of the crowd reactions.  The quality of the movies is mediocre, but their keepsake value is tremendous.

A few minutes after totality ended, I was thinking about the next total solar eclipse for North America, which will be on April 8, 2024.








It’s Time for the Eclipse, and I Don’t Have Eclipse Glasses. What Can I Do?

No need to worry.  There are several safe, simple ways to view the progress of the eclipse:

  1. A pinhole projector can be as simple as an index card with a tiny hole.  A thumb tack or a push pin can make a good hole of the proper size.  ‘To use, hold the card so that it faces the Sun, and place a second index card in the shadow of the first card.   Adjust the spacing of the cards until a good image of the Sun is visible.
  2. Use a mirror to project Sunlight onto a wall.  I just heard about this technique, and haven’t had a chance to try it out.  Use a circular mirror, or a mirror masked by cardboard with a circular hole.  Hold the mirror so that it casts reflected sunlight onto a smooth white or gray wall, or some similar surface.  If all goes well, the patch of reflected light will have the same shape as the eclipsed Sun.  Caution:  Don’t look directly into the mirror to see the Sun.  This is just as destructive as looking directly at the Sun.  If you fasten the mirror to any kind of fixture, stay with it, so that other people don’t misuse it.
  3. Here’s an easy one: Find a tree or bush with leaves and look at the shadow that it casts.  Wherever the shadow has a small sunny spot, you should be able to see the shape of the eclipsed Sun.  This same effect can be produced by a piece of cardboard with a hole, or even with your hands and fingers.

Enjoy the eclipse, wherever you are!

lookin’ up,



Leaving Town for the Eclipse

Today is packing day, and tomorrow we drive to Illinois.  On Saturday morning, we will pick a destination, based on the latest weather forecasts.

It is my desire to make frequent posts during this expedition.  We will see if this works out.  Right now, the last-minute preparations don’t leave much time for writing!

lookin’ up,



I Haven’t made Any Plans. Is It Too Late to View the Total Eclipse?

No, it isn’t!

No one knows for sure how many people will travel to the band of land where the Total Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017 will be visible.  Crowding will very likely be a problem, but here are a few ideas to consider:

  • The “narrow band” for totality is actually a vast area. Even with millions of people visiting, there is plenty of room for everyone.
  • Of course, some places will be very popular, and they will be crowded.
  • Our love of automobiles and our road system is the weak link in handling a large number of people. On August 21, the eclipse traffic will be added to the normal traffic load.  A particular concern would be after the eclipse, where most people will want to go home at the same time.
  • Motel rooms will be available at the last minute, because some people (my self included) have made reservations in multiple cities. The unused reservations will be cancelled a day or two before August 21.

So, I offer this advice:

  • Try to make motel reservations as close to the area of totality as possible.
  • Check for last-minute vacancies at places inside the area of totality.
  • Arrive at your destination as early as you can manage.
  • Keep your gas tank full, and bring food and water.
  • Bring printed road maps, since the cellular networks in some areas may be overloaded.
  • Try to plan a route which avoids the major highways. In particular, be wary of expressways, because U-turns are not allowed.
  • Research good locations to view the eclipse. Many small towns have provided viewing areas, with varying levels of support.
  • While the centerline of the band of totality offers the maximum duration of totality, areas a small number of miles away will be almost as good.

In summary, a total eclipse of the Sun is such a magnificent event that many people want to experience it.  Even with advance planning, inconveniences will occur.  The goal is to keep them to a minimum, and have a memorable day!


Some Links and Apps For the August 21 Total Solar Eclipse

These links will cover virtually every aspect of watching this eclipse:

A very interesting analysis of road traffic patterns:

The US Weather Service offers this service:

Here are two Android apps which calculate the local circumstances (timing and degree to which the Sun is covered):

Eclipse Safari


Keep looking up!



The Moon Has Started the Final Lap Before the Great Eclipse

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3-Day old Moon, July 25, 2017

As August 21 approaches, my excitement increases.  After many years of hearing about total solar eclipses, I expect to have the chance to see one.

If the Moon were alive, it would probably wonder why there is so much excitement.  After all, the Moon has been following the same path for millions of years.

Last night, the Moon looked serene as it hovered over the Western horizon, as it has done so many times before.  From my point of view, this time is different.  I see the Moon beginning its last set of phases before the Total Eclipse in August.




Don’t Forget to Check Out Jupiter.

Some times I can’t come up with a good topic, and should not burden the reader with a low-quality post.

Today, I was ready to skip the weekly post, but I remembered that Jupiter is in a prominent location in the sky.  Jupiter has always been a pleasure to observe, with a telescope, with binoculars, or even naked-eye.

So a brief word: Take a look at Jupiter!

Have a good week.





“Did Pluto Disappear?”

“Did Pluto Disappear?”

This is an exact quote, from a young student at a star party. When I heard this question, I realized that the new definition of a planet has created confusion for students.

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union adopted a new definition of a planet.  It requires that the body be large enough that it naturally assumes a spherical shape, and it requires that the body be large enough to “clear the neighborhood around its orbit.”  Pluto does have the spherical shape, but it hasn’t “cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.”  Therefore, Pluto was designated as a “Dwarf Planet”, rather than a “Planet”.

A new proposal by Kirby Runyon is the extreme opposite of that of the IAU.  Runyon’s definition requires only that the body have a spherical shape.  It doesn’t matter what kind of orbit it follows.  This would mean that moons would called planets, if they are spherical.  This would raise our list of planets to over 100 members!

My proposal is to define a planet to be any object orbiting the Sun, which is known to have a spherical shape. Other objects, such as asteroids and comets, are not spherical, and would not be called planets. There are several large objects, such as Eris, Haumea and Makemake, which are too distant for their shapes to be determined.  Until better observations are made, these objects would not be listed as planets.

How big would the new list be? Only ten planets for now!

Here is the proposed list, in order of distance from the Sun:


Note that our old friend Pluto is back on the list.  Also, a new member, Ceres, has been added.  Since most people have never heard of Ceres, the new list should encourage people to learn something about this planet.

The Dawn spacecraft is currently studying Ceres.  This image shows two very unusual bright spots on its surface.

This method of defining the word “planet” may never make it to the text books, but it was fun putting it together!

As always, keep looking up!



For more information on the planet Ceres:

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