Standing In the Shadow of the Moon

'Sup, Nerds?

My last blog post came shortly after the August 21st total solar eclipse, and since then I have been quite busy settling into my new teaching gigs. I intend to incorporate this website into that endeavor by using it as a platform to share content with my students, such as lecture notes, and I think that information might be useful to anyone who is learning physics. So, look forward to that in the future!

Meanwhile, I have gotten a couple of requests from family members for me to share my eclipse experience. They are itching to see my pictures and hear my stories, and I have been so focused on school that none of this material has been forthcoming. Until now!

In this post, I am going to share everything I have that is worthwhile—all of my pictures, my videos, my memories, for all to explore, starting with my original plan: to spend the weekend prior camping out at the Rosecrans Memorial Airport in Saint Joseph, Missouri.

The blue line marks the centerline of the 2017 eclipse path. Image captured from a  map made by Xavier Jubier .

The blue line marks the centerline of the 2017 eclipse path. Image captured from a map made by Xavier Jubier.

The centerline of the eclipse path ran just past runway 35's threshold, and the fields around the airport were being divvied up into parking and campsites for eclipse chasers from around the world. I figured it would be a good spot to serve as a home base, as historically the weather forecast for late August is best over the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. This spot on the Missouri/Kansas border would serve as a gateway towards clear skies.

Historic afternoon cloud coverage for the month of August—blue is best! Image captured from Eclipse2017.org.

From St. Joseph, I planned to pursue clear skies by driving as far west along the eclipse path as needed to get out from beneath the clouds. I reserved my campsite months in advance and planned to drive out there on Saturday, August 19th. However, by Friday, August 18th, three-day forecasts were issued for North America, and my plan suddenly changed.

Why drive all the way out to St. Joseph, just northwest of Kansas City, when the weather for western Kentucky "looks good?!" A few last minute emails and phone calls later, I was fortunate enough to jump onboard with a group of volunteers from the Cincinnati Observatory who were heading down to Dawson Springs, Kentucky. Saturday afternoon, my father and I packed and prepared to hit the road.

Though we had a late start, the trip to Dawson Springs was quite uneventful: two hours of smooth sailing to Louisville on I-71 followed by two more hours to the Land Between the Lakes region, mostly along the Bluegrass Parkway. Upon arriving at Dawson Springs around 11 PM CDT, we did run into a snag, however: since everything came together at the last possible minute, I did not know where in town our campsite was! Somehow, I got it into my head that we were camping at nearby Pennyrile Forest State Resort Park, and so Dad and I ventured out there before figuring out about one hour later that we were actually setting up in a big field just outside of town. The detour was worth it, however, for the skies at Pennyrile's primitive camp site were some of the darkest I have seen in a very long time.

By midnight local time, Dad and I figured out where we were supposed to be. We found our plot, pitched our tent, and turned in for the night, dreaming of what was to come.

The blue dot marks the position of Dawson Springs, KY. The gold star is the center of the eclipse. All-in-all, ours was not a bad place to be!

The blue dot marks my location on the map. We camped in a large field just outside of town across the Tradewater River from an old minor league baseball field.

Throughout the day on Sunday, we greeted others as they came, made friends with the locals, and put the finishing touches on our solar-viewing apparatuses. The centerpiece of my setup was a cheap refracting telescope and a sun funnel, the details of which can be found by clicking the link.

It works!

Clear skies on Sunday night caused the gathering of astronomers to break out their telescopes for a camp-wide star party before the fog rolled in. Then it was off to bed for all of us to get up early and prepare for the big day.

Dawn over Dawson Springs

Monday morning broke with low-level fog and high cirrus clouds—conditions that made me only somewhat nervous. Still, the sky was beautiful. Venus shined brightly in the East before fading out with the rising sun. However, soon thereafter, another point of light appeared in the sky!

Take a close look in the middle of this picture, just in front of that cirrus cloud—you might notice a very small point of light. It was brilliant to the naked-eye!

A few of us saw it at about the same time, as we gazed up to survey the clouds. The dot was tremendously bright as by this point the Sun was above the horizon and even brilliant Venus had completely faded from view. Thus we knew it could not be natural unless nature conspired to serve up our eclipse with a side of supernova! I grabbed my binoculars to take a closer look and saw almost immediately that despite seeming like a UFO, it was, in fact, a weather balloon.

From this zoomed-in view, one can just barely make out the extended shape of a high-altitude balloon. Its structure was quite obvious in my binoculars.

As has been the case throughout centuries past, scientists gathered from all over to study the Sun during this eclipse. Instruments were placed on the ground along the eclipse path and flown high in the upper atmosphere aboard aircraft and balloons. I later learned that this particular balloon was almost certainly launched by a NASA team at Pennyrile to gauge the upper-level winds. It did appear in the direction of the park, and according to an eyewitness who was there on-sight, they launched the first balloon at dawn. It turns out this wouldn't be the only NASA flight we might have seen that day, for evidently, two WB-57F high altitude research aircraft overflew our location during totality.

Once everyone was up, a group of us went into town for breakfast. Though the one local diner was overwhelmed with visitors, we filled our stomachs and returned to camp with plenty of time to get ready.

Alright weather, you're perfect—DON'T CHANGE!!!

We set up solar scopes, we re-positioned Sun shades, we made sure everybody had their eclipse glasses, and before we knew it, first contact was upon us!

The next hour was spent having lots of fun with the Sun.

I learned a valuable lesson that afternoon: empty your phone's SD card before recording video of an eclipse! Unfortunately, I ran out of storage space, and so was therefore unable record the whole thing. Not that it looked good on my camera, mind you—that was nothing compared to what one saw when compared to the naked-eye—but I was keen on catching my reaction as well as that of the group, especially during the diamond rings. During the first one at second contact, I was distracted by my effort to see the Moon's shadow come racing across our field, following the mistaken calculation that the process would take 3 seconds. (Turns out it actually took 1/3 of a second!) That said, in some regard, I was lucky, for the lack of distractions allowed me to concentrate my full attention upon the Sun in the final few moments of totality. As the Moon drifted along its orbit and our star re-emerged, I loosed the purest, most innate and primal "YEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!" of my entire life.

And others caught it on camera!

From Chuck Strubbe:

From Dave McBride:

Immediately following totality, Scott and Michelle Gainey produced the most appropriate toast:

I don't normally drink Corona beer, but when I do it's to celebrate seeing the solar corona. Image credit: Paul Blasing

Throughout the rest of the afternoon, my fellow umbraphiles and I watched a river of cars slowly creep along the road, as folks who trickled into the path of totality over the course of an entire weekend suddenly left en masse, thus creating what was probably the largest traffic jam in our nation's history. Consequently, we all decided to wait a few hours before leaving.

By 5 pm local time the stream had reduced to a trickle and most people in our camp had left. Having packed up our last items, my father and I followed suit. However, the highways were still choked with traffic, and so through a combination of smartphones, GPS's, and our wits, we managed to plot a course along country back roads all the way to Louisville! Still, throughout the whole route, gas stations and restaurants were packed with eclipse chasers, each excited but eager to get home. I will never forget the sight of I-71 North between Lousiville and Cincinnati, where even around midnight a continuous line of cars stretched all the way to the horizon.

After six or more hours on the road, I returned home exhausted but ecstatic, as an event I had looked forward to for over seven years had come and gone in just over two and a half minutes. Ever since then, one thought has loomed large in my mind: how do I get to the next one?

Many thanks go out to my friends and family who joined me on this adventure and who made it possible—especially Tom East, who found campsites in Dawson Springs on behalf of the Friends of the Cincinnati Observatory. Thanks go to John Blasing who reserved the particular plot upon which Dad and I pitched our tent. And, of course, I would be remiss to not extend my heartfelt gratitude to the leaders and residents of Dawson Springs, whose fantastic organization and hospitality was as memorable and appreciated as the eclipse itself.

Thank you, all, and I hope to see you for the next one!

Aaron