BCIT Engineering student, Jason Wait, joined thousands of other eclipse chasers to the totality zone to watch the total eclipse of the sun on August 21 2017. He shares with us his experience driving there, his set up and how he was able to capture the amazing images with his telescope.
On August 21, 2017, an astronomical phenomenon occurred that excited and captured the attention of millions of people. The total eclipse of the Sun would be visible for the first time in 26 years. As an amateur astronomer, I had been looking forward to the total Eclipse of August 2017 for quite some time.
A few weeks before the Eclipse, my boyfriend Thomas surprised me by suggesting that we make a road trip down to the Totality Zone in honor of my birthday. We chose to drive to Lyons, Oregon, as this was precisely in the center of the Zone of Totality. The Totality Zone is the region on Earth that falls directly under the shadow of the moon during an Eclipse, and would be ideal for viewing a total eclipse. I knew immediately that I would bring my telescope, and attempt to document the rare astronomical event.
We started our road trip on Sunday evening, 12 hours before the solar event would begin at 9:04 AM. We drove through the Peace Arch border crossing on Sunday night around 9:00PM, with a car full of Telescope gear and several take out boxes of food from my family’s restaurant. Prior to leaving, we had been listening to traffic reports about highway congestion due to other eclipse chasers travelling to the Totality Zone. We had anticipated significant traffic, but were pleasantly surprised by the completely empty highway, leaving a smooth sailing for us down to Oregon.
We drove for six hours and arrived in Lyons, late at night. It was estimated that several million North Americans traveled to locations along the Totality Zone for a full view of the Eclipse. Almost all of the hotel rooms, airBnB’s and campsites were booked months in advance, or the rates were raised incredibly high for the weekend. Instead, we found a quiet field beside a baseball diamond, and parked there for the remaining few hours of the night.
I had photographed a partial Eclipse through my telescope before, so I was able to use Baader solar filter paper to equip a Nikon DSLR camera to capture images. While I double, and triple checked to ensure that all of my equipment was present for the big moment, Thomas used duct tape and cardboard to produce a well-fitting mount for the filter to attach to the camera’s lens. I decided to document the eclipse through my Dobsonian telescope, which mounts an optical tube of 202mm mirror diameter, and a focal length of 1.2m (F5.9).
The Eclipse was supposed to begin at 9:04 AM, and complete the eclipse by 10:19 AM. About 20 minutes before the two-minute window of totality, my laptop (completely disconnected from any network) began a Windows update. I panicked. The computer immediately turned off all software, while the flashing the message: “Windows updating, please do not touch the power” blinked across the screen. I breathed deeply. Luckily, I kept calm and resisted the urge to snap my laptop in half, because the system updated and was back up and running in time for the eclipse.
Capturing astronomical photos of solar system objects is data-intensive because one must capture a video file at the highest frame rate possible, while maintaining a strong signal to transfer the data. The result of collecting more than 125GB of image data ultimately allowed me to produce the seven-frame gif below showing the eclipse. Each panel is captured as a video file, containing hundreds or thousands of exposures, and those frames are then averaged to produce a single sharp image. The large video files are then broken into individual frames, and then special software will average the pixel values from each image to produce a final result with a high signal and a significantly reduced noise floor.
During a total eclipse, the moon passes the sun and blocks the sunlight such that the normally bright atmosphere of Earth becomes transparent (as it does at night). The significance of a total eclipse as viewed from one location on Earth is no more special than the formation of clouds, or the freezing of water. For the scientific community, the real impact and excitement is the cultural and historical significance of a total eclipse.
The drive back to Vancouver took about twice as much time as the journey to Oregon, at 12.5 hours long. Fortunately, we had plenty of snacks, podcasts and music to make it bearable. The next total eclipse is set to happen in 2024, and if you have the opportunity to do an eclipse road trip, I highly recommend it!
Follow Jason on Instagram for more astrophotography: @jasonrwait
Check out Jason’s Astrobin: www.astrobin.com/users/narrowbandimager