Total solar eclipses are the supershells of astronomy. Teams of scientists develop game plans to record data months or years in advance, as do amateur astronomers working to create their own constellations or conduct their own studies, and all this amounts to a few precious seconds in the shadow of the moon. When the clock expires and the sun returns, the game is over.
The solar eclipse on Tuesday in Chile and Argentina was a unique experience. It not only occurred during a so-called solar minimum, when the activity was lowest in the 11-year cycle of solar energy release, which reduced the amount of "clutter" for certain types of research, but also occurred a direct stripe over several the world's most famous observatories. Operators chose the sites in the Chilean Atacama Desert for their perfect visibility, which also contributed to an incredibly sharp and clear view of the eclipse, even when the large telescopes were closed to protect their sensitive instruments for the event.
The event did not disappoint. I have been watching with researchers and a small group of enthusiasts at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, operated by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. Although planning for the event began years ago, the final on-site preparations took place in the days, hours, and minutes that led to the two-minute total time in the late afternoon in the southern winter, with the final boost coming after a preparatory phase drive from La Serena to the mountain peak on the Chilean coast. Locally, researchers from around the world set up and aligned their telescopes, calibrated their sensors, and laid power and data cables around the mountain. When the show arrived, everyone announced that they were ready.
It will take months for their data to be fully analyzed, but after that the scientists were satisfied and confident. "The eclipse was great," said project scientist Paul Bryans of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, whose group studied magnetic fields in the solar corona or the upper atmosphere. "Cerro Tololo was a great place to see it, and the weather was perfect. As for the results, it is a bit too early to really say it. The first look at the data, however, is promising. We will analyze it thoroughly when we return to Boulder. "
For everyone else on the mountain, the eclipse was a bit unnerving. Tangled – at least in advance – especially if you, like me, work on creating your own images. I had been thinking for months about how many cameras to use, which lenses and most critically which settings. My plan was theoretically complex, but relatively simple in execution. First I flew up my DJI Mavic Pro 2 drone and – with the permission of the observatory – parked it about 300 meters behind the telescopes to record a 4K video of the lunar shadow moving across the observatory. This would happen about 10 minutes before the totality and I could just start filming and the drone would automatically hold the position.
Then I planned to spend the first 15 seconds of totality shooting through a 400mm 1: 2.8 Sony The lens that the company lent me for it – it's a monster, and it costs $ 12,000, but is an amazing piece of equipment – before I switch to a wide-angle lens for another 15 seconds, hoping to capture the solar eclipse behind two observatory dome telescopes. After that, I spent a full minute shooting nothing at all, just walking to the edge of the flattened mountain to enjoy the eclipse and take in the otherworldly beauty of the event. This is an important element of the Eclipse experience: just enjoy. Many photographers and scientists are so preoccupied with their plans to capture the eclipse that they forget to take it in, as this great experience – in the truest sense of the word – can not be reproduced through photos or videos. You have to see it in person to really understand what it is.
When the countdown timer on my smartphone slipped to the start of totality, all my plans went up in flames. Looking at the drone feed, I realized that it did not have the hoped-for visibility, and switched to photo mode, which offers a much wider field of view, and lowered the altitude a bit. When the totality began, I fired a few shots by hand; then I switched to the big Sony lens. My settings were not quite right, so I had to move the shutter switch in an instant to capture a series of exposures, and thus the details of the protrusions as well as the brighter corona that was now visible. Luckily I could see through the digital viewfinder that I got good pictures and I switched to the wide angle camera.
I have not spent much time wondering how good these would be because I quickly realized it would be almost impossible to perfect that image in the time I had. So I burned down some settings, changed the lens and went to the fence on the edge of the mountain.
The walk was glorious, with the moon in the sky and the shimmering corona of the sun in the background. The coincidence that makes the whole thing possible – namely that the sun and the moon are exactly the same apparent size in the sky and thus perfectly match each other – is an amazing gift from the universe. My gait slowed as I tried to process both the surreal madness and the beauty of the spectacle. I picked up my camera, squeezing out a few half-hearted frames of the eclipse, the landscape below, and the 360-degree sunrise that we experienced at 7000 feet of the observatory, then rode out the last few seconds just to watch wonder the sight.
It ended with a flash of light on the right side of the moon, and the telescopes and the crowd began swimming again in the sunlight.
In view of the chaos of these pictures, my pictures turned out to be a surprisingly good two minutes, and I'm grateful for that. I would also exchange them for two minutes in the Moonshade. People often talk about the mystical and spiritual side of eclipses and there is definitely an emotional impact for a lot of observers. But for me, it's just a rare, special gift of the cosmos – a reminder that the universe is precise and predictable and infinitely surprised, but also beautiful and mysterious. The eclipse is a sublime manifestation of all these qualities, condensing into a two-minute show that takes place every 18 months wherever it pleases.
Would you like to see a solar eclipse yourself? If you missed the 2017 event in the US or you just want to take another leap, prepare for the Dark of 2024, which leads from Mexico to Canada and across the US from Texas to Maine.
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