Total Solar Eclipse 2017
Monday, 21 Aug 2017
The 2017 Eclipse Mega-Movie!
So often in science, amateurs are frustrated by the fact that their observations can contribute seemingly very little of value to “serious” research. Things tend to be somewhat more promising in the field of astronomy, as we all share the same sky – though few of us have access to space- or mountain-based observatories, or to hugely expensive, specialized instruments. But a wonderful idea has now been put forth by some illustrious scientists/eclipse chasers, regarding a real-time experiment that just about everyone with a camera, a tripod and a GPS can participate in. In fact, anyone who is planning to take pictures of the eclipse could potentially take part!
A bit of Background…
The only negative comments that are generally offered about eclipses are that they tend to occur in very out-of-the-way places, and they don’t last long enough. The 2017 event will literally occur in many hundreds of thousands of people’s backyards, so “out of the way” isn’t an issue for North Americans – but the eclipse will still be of woefully short duration for every individual observer along the path (2m 40s is the most any ground-based observer can hope for during this eclipse).
There are only a very few ways that one can increase the length of time available for viewing or photographing totality, and the benefit received is generally not enough to motivate us to try out the techniques. One way is to position oneself high up on a mountain that just happens to lie very near the centerline, close to the point of greatest eclipse. This might gain the elevated observer a few seconds’ extra duration of totality over what could be experienced closer to sea level, but if there is no mountain situated in that most advantageous of spots, the plan is pretty much foiled before it even gets off the ground.
Speaking of getting off the ground, you could also try getting in an airplane (a very fast one) and chasing the moon’s shadow as it slides across the face of the earth at many hundreds of miles per hour. Only a satellite in orbit (just the right orbit!) or an ultra-fast military plane can actually outrun the shadow, but by placing yourself inside a fast commercial plane, on the right course and heading, your perceived duration of totality can be stretched by an admirable amount. In fact, for the 2010 eclipse in the South Pacific (because of a great happenstance made possible by the unique geometry of this particular eclipse path), a smaller chartered plane guided by the inimitable Dr. Glenn Schneider of the University of Arizona achieved for its passengers the astonishing accomplishment of observing over nine minutes of totality! This feat (more than doubling the ground-based duration of totality) was unprecedented in the annals of amateur eclipse-chasing, and cannot mathematically or physically be re-created during any eclipse in the immediate future.
In 1973, a Concorde supersonic aircraft flew over Africa in the ultimate showcase of this technique. The passengers on board this flight (all of them high-ranking scientists) were able to stay in the moon’s shadow for just over an hour! But sadly, all the viewing ports on that aircraft were taken up by equipment, so the amount of “wow, look at that!” viewing and photography that was accomplished by these few fortunate folk was, basically, none at all. And of course, it will sadly not be possible to re-create such a Concorde flight any time soon.
Getting to the point…
All this background and build-up serves only to illustrate the great possibility that we have in the USA to create a “mega-movie” of the 2017 eclipse! By having ground-based observers, located at all points along the path, photograph the eclipse at various exposures and times during their individual portions of totality, and then submitting those photos to a central authority along with information about the photographers’ exposures and locations, a “time-lapse”-like movie could be painstakingly assembled which would document what amounts to an observation of a super-eclipse of over an hour and a half duration! In fact, multiple movies could be made (each using exposures of differing lengths) which could individually document the prominences, chromosphere, and inner and outer coronas for that same length of time. Never in history has this sort of thing been attempted – yet here is the possibility, staring us in the face for the Great American Eclipse!
It is estimated by some scientists that the stupendous duration of this mega-movie might be enough so that actual changes in the structure and shape of the various solar phenomena could actually be recorded, viewed and studied – and therein lies the contribution to science that could be made by the collection of each individual’s contribution to the effort. On their own, individual pictures of a total solar eclipse are very interesting, but their scientific value is relatively low. Taken as a whole, though, thousands of pictures of the event, combined into a mega-movie, could bring science something wonderful and remarkable – a collective gift from the thousands of amateurs who, along with their conversion to eclipse fanaticism, would be able to beam with pride that their humble photographic efforts might have contributed to an unprecedented scientific partnership!
How do I participate?
Simple! We have been working closely with the authors of the seminal paper for this idea, and you can find out the latest information by visiting the Citizen CATE Facebook page. But even if you don’t register, you can participate if you plan to take any photographs at all of the eclipse! Practically any photos that are taken with a sufficiently long lens will be of value, though you must learn all you can about eclipse photography – having the right equipment and especially the right FILTERS(!) – and then practice on the uneclipsed sun to ensure you have the setup figured out. Do NOT try to take pictures with a point and shoot camera – they simply will not be usable. DO NOT use any type of flash whatsoever during totality, as it will gain you nothing in terms of quality of your pictures, and will certainly ruin both the pictures and the optical dark-adaptation of yourself and everyone around you. NEVER point any optical instrument (including your eyes) at the uneclipsed sun without proper filters. And even with the right equipment, you must be certain that your setup and procedures are practiced well in advance to ensure that you get usable images even during the excitement of the event. You MUST use a tripod, you MUST have a long enough lens (at least 300mm), and you MUST use filters on the lens for the time that the sun is not in TOTAL eclipse. You must also MAKE SURE to record your exact latitude and longitude with a GPS, and the exact times of your exposures. This is not as easy to do as it sounds, and we will be writing up some instructions on how to best accomplish the task. But you can do it (my first eclipse’s pictures turned out GREAT!) if you are truly of a mind to do so!