Northern Arizona astronomy: preliminary results of our solar eclipse trip

Barry Malpas

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — My wife, Anne, and I travelled north to observe the recent solar eclipse, a trip we had planned for over two years. This was her first total (eclipse), having seen only the annular in 2012. It was my fourth total, plus three past annular eclipses.

For eclipse chasers, this is a paltry number since I know astronomers who have observed over 30. However, this one would only be observed on American soil, its’ path of totality passing from the Pacific Ocean, entering the U.S. in Oregon, passing diagonally through the center of the country, then leaving over South Carolina, ending in the Atlantic Ocean.

The last time this happened was in 1918, and it will not happen again for about a half century. To observe the event, I chose a remote spot in western Nebraska, about 25 miles north of Mitchell. The reason this spot was selected was for favorable weather conditions close to the center-line of totality, and the fact that other locations would be populated by thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of observers, both professional as well as first timers, since this had been promoted as a once in a life-time event to the public. So, we packed up our mobile observatory (17-foot trailer with telescopes and cameras) and headed north.

Luckily, we were able to find an agreeable farmer to let us stay on his land for two days where he even provided electricity for our equipment. We set up and pre-aligned the telescopes and cameras for advantageous solar tracking and prepared for the event.

On the morning of the 21st, as the partial eclipse phases proceeded, the lighting of the surrounding area took on an eerie dimming cast as if a storm were approaching from behind you. The breeze that was once lightly blowing stilled. Just before totality, the swallows came out, the cows got quiet, and the crickets began chirping, all events normally reserved for the early evening.

During totality, the horizon looked as if the sun had set about 45 minutes ago, but in all directions (360 degrees.) Venus was evident about 30 degrees off to the right of the eclipsed sun, though I could not discern any other planets or stars. The sky was dark, but not as dark as I remember the 1991, or the 1970 solar eclipses. This is probably because of the many fires burning in the north and southwestern states producing smoke particles in the upper atmosphere, which would scatter the sunlight somewhat. This might also account in part for the only nine degree temperature drop, unlike others that have dropped about twice as much.

During the eclipse I took about 150 images, both of partial phases as well as total. During this time between partials, I recorded regular temperature changes. Anne took photos of the surrounding landscape to see if the ‘shadow bands’ might be observed (an optical diffraction effect caused when the sun light passes next to the edge of the sun, and sometimes seen during total eclipses.) She also shot a 360 degree movie of the surrounding horizon during totality.

As totality ended, a 2-minute and 20 second duration for us, the breeze picked up again and the temperature began to warm into the 80s.

Solar prominences visible at the edge of the sun during the eclipse. The large one toward the top-middle is about 40,000 miles high, or about five Earth diameters in size.


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