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May 21st, 2012

Eclipse Wrapup

By four PM yesterday I knew we were in trouble: The western sky was overcast, and weather radar showed various precipitation clouds squirming around in our line of sight to the western horizon. However, the scope and the folding chairs were already packed in the back of the 4Runner, so on the outside chance a miracle might happen, we put QBit and Dash in the back seat (Aero and Jack don't like crowds of admirers as much) and steamed six miles east to St. Raphael's Episcopal Church.

We had announced the event at both morning services, and several of our fellow parishioners were waiting eagerly for us as we got there about 5:30. I chose a spot in the parking lot to maximize western coverage, then stood around talking to our friends with one eye on the sky. Well, call it miracles or just call it a side benefit of chaos (in the rigorous sense, as the math that governs complex systems like weather and climate) but a little before six the sky in the northwest started to clear.

With a little help from fourteen-year-old Fred Jones (below left) I got my vintage 8" vent-pipe junkbox scope (details and better photos here) set up in record time. We put it in the wind-shadow of the 4Runner, and while I adjusted the optics Fred went and got some additional folding chairs from the parish hall. By then a few more people had arrived, and by 6:15 we had a small crowd of chairs in a half-circle around the scope and its foamcore screen.

Eclipse Group 500 Wide.jpg

The skies were not great. We had runs of clear air and runs of dense cloud. While it was clear I pointed out the several sunspots, and at 6:24 Fred announced that there was a flat edge to the Sun's image at the bottom of the screen. We had a chance to see that flat edge grow to a small scallop before the clouds closed in again.

At about 6:45 it cleared up, and for over half an hour we actually had a decent line on the Sun as the Moon took a greater and greater bite out of it. The coolest event of the evening happened so quickly that only a few of us caught it: A jetliner clipped across one of the horns of the sun's roughly 50% eclipsed disk. Remarkably, Dianna Jones was taking a video of the foamcore screen when it occurred, and she's going to try and fish out the frame or two of the plane's passing when she goes through the video on her PC.

Eclipse 350 Wide.jpgWe had a decent view up to about 65% or so coverage, when the clouds closed in what turned out to be for good. In the meantime, there was a profound weirdness: A southeast wind blew light rain out of clouds that had already passed over us, and even though it was (mostly) clear from well east of the zenith to the Sun, we watched the best part of the eclipse in the rain. As God may well have been telling us: "Here's your miracle. Just don't get cocky." And to seal the deal He gave us an intense double rainbow. What does it mean? It means we didn't mind getting a little wet, we laughed, and we all had a wonderful time. (I threw my jacket over the most vulnerable portions of my scope.)

My emphasis was not to take great photos but to make the eclipse accessible to people who would otherwise have to be content with a few shots on TV. Our friends were able to walk right up to one side of the foamcore and see the umbrae and penumbrae of sunspots on the image. Most snapped their own pictures of the Sun's disk, and we talked about things like heat distortion at the edges of the image (because the Sun was very low in the sky) how reflector telescopes differed from refractors, and much else.

I had hoped to catch the crescent Venus after sunset, but by then the western sky was solid clouds. We packed up and went home. I still call it a great success. After all, in 1972, a group of my friends and I drove 1400 miles from Chicago to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River for a total solar eclipse, only to be clouded out a bare hour before totality. Carol and I have seen two unobstructed total solar eclipses since then, including the "big one" in Baja in 1991. Two out of three ain't bad.

Next stop: Grand Island, Nebraska on August 21, 2017.

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