Reporting from Down Under: It’s a solar eclipse shark attack in Australia

I had never realized before that a photograph of a partial solar eclipse behind lots of colorful clouds at sunrise looks so much like a shark attack. Especially if you’re watching it over the Pacific Ocean with about 40,000 other people in Cairns, Australia.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

See the fin?

In my nine eclipse expeditions, I have never seen these unique atmospheric conditions before. Traditional knowledge suggests it’s best if your solar eclipse view is cloudless, with the sun’s corona surrounding the moon’s black disk at totality. But if clouds spoil that view, I discovered that dramatic images can hide in the cloud decks, especially if the clouds are thick enough to filter the sun’s light (effective neutral density of four or greater) and allow a camera to capture images without a solar filter. (Safety note: We kept solar filters ready at a moment’s notice if conditions improved. We also viewed only through the LED display of the digital camera, not through the viewfinder.)

The museum’s solar eclipse travelers had a front row seat from the balcony of their rooms on the 11th floor of our Australia hotel. Boats had anchored in the harbor below us, and eclipse watchers camped on the boardwalk by the water. The event became a dynamic interplay of clouds and the partially eclipsed sun. Sunrise began with decks of clouds drifting between the sun and us. We aimed cameras mounted on telescopes to the place where we knew the sun would appear when the clouds parted.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

The view from out hotel balcony at 6 a.m., when the sun was just clearing the peninsula’s tallest peaks. The Takahashi FCT-76 is on the left and the FS-60 is on the right, riding on a Sky Patrol equatorial mount.

Rays of sunlight through cloud decks also showed the sun’s location. As the beams moved across the land, we knew it would soon be our turn to see through a tiny thinning of the clouds just before totality. As totality approached, the sky gradually darkened and the temperature dropped. The city lights below us had just turned off at sunrise and now flickered back to life. Flash bulbs blinked over the city as photographers hoped in vain to light a path through the clouds. For the two minutes of totality, the rays of sunlight vanished, the clouds became black shadows and a sunrise glow illuminated the horizon. Then daylight returned, and we looked to see if our cameras had captured anything our eyes had missed. That’s when we discovered the shark fin shapes of the partially eclipsed sun appearing to sail behind a fantastic display of pale hued clouds. Did we have the best view of totality? Maybe not. But in the interplay of thick colorful cloud decks, we were treated to a very rare unfiltered solar eclipse at sunrise.

Photographs tell the story better:

Total Eclipse of the Heart

Here I’m focusing the Celestron 5 telescope. Next to me is the Takahashi FCT-76 and the Takahashi FS-60 is closest to the camera.

Total Eclipse of the Heart

At about 6:20 a.m., the partially eclipsed sun peeks through the clouds. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

Total Eclipse of the Heart

The shark’s fin is the sun’s disk, partially covered by the moon and by several banks of Earth clouds. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

Total Eclipse of the Heart

At about 6:25 a.m., totality is just over 10 minutes away. The colors become more dramatic as the sunlight level drops. Photography through a Celestron 5 with focal reducer (focal length 800mm).

Total Eclipse of the Heart

The camera cuts off most of this shark fin, but notice the sunrise colors lingering in the clouds. Photography through a Takahashi FCT-76.

Total Eclipse of the HeartAt about 6:30 a.m., the clouds and colors become dramatic as totality nears.
Photography through the Takahashi FS-60 at 600 mm focal length.

Total Eclipse of the HeartFour and a half minutes later, as totality approaches, the clouds darken, with only the closest illuminated by the last rays of the sun’s photosphere and perhaps the first faint glows of the corona. Photography through the Takahashi FS-60 at 600 mm focal length

Total Eclipse of the HeartAt 6:38 a.m., totality began and the clouds obscured the fainter corona. The sky became as dark as a full moon night with sunrise colors streamed across the horizon.

Talk Like a Pirate Day has passed, now onto another stellar holiday: International Observe the Moon Day!

Come join us at The George Observatory for a night of fun underneath the moon this Saturday, Sept. 22!

International Observe the Moon Day

It’s International Observe the Moon Night and this year’s theme is “Under the Same Moon.” Kiddos are invited to wear their pajamas and come listen to Moon stories and learn about the Moon phases in our Starry Room.

Bring the family for crafts like making Moon craters and enjoy an evening in our Challenger Learning Center with a “Mission to the Moon.” You’ll board the “SS Observer” spacecraft and take on different tasks as a family to land safely on the Moon.

The mission will start at 6 p.m., and the cost is $10 per person. Early registration is encouraged.

As the day falls into night, amateur astronomers will have their telescopes pointed toward the Moon and other celestial objects. With the Moon being at first quarter, the public will be able to see craters, ridges, and other prominent features of the landscape. There will also be a telescope set up with a video camera for an extra up-close-and-personal view.

To reserve tickets, click here!

Remembering Neil Armstrong: The first man on the moon dies at 82

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, died Saturday at the age of 82.

Neil ArmstrongArmstrong made history on July 20, 1969 as commander of the Apollo 11 mission when he set foot on the moon in front of a captivated American TV audience.

Fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who was on the Apollo 11 mission with Armstrong, said, “Whenever I look at the moon it reminds me of the moment over four decades ago when I realized that even though we were farther away from earth than two humans had ever been, we were not alone.

Following his death, the American icon’s family called Armstrong “our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend […] a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job.”

“The next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

So give Neil a wink this weekend and check out how he’s being remembered around the world:

 

You can give Armstrong a wink of your own at the George Observatory.

As big as it gets: Celebrate a super(moon) Cinco de Mayo at the George Observatory

The supermoon is this Saturday, May 5th, 2012.Something out-of-this-world — think celestial — is happening this Saturday evening. It’s the biggest, brightest moon of the year: the supermoon!

The last supermoon was over a year ago, but that was nothing compared to the sky show we’re about to watch this weekend. The moon on Cinco de Mayo will appear 14% larger and 30% brighter, with the maximum brightness at 10:35 pm CDT — just at the end of regular observation hours at our George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park.

But you’ll get more than the moon when you look toward the stars this weekend! There will also be three planets in view (Venus, Mars, and Saturn), plus the peak of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. These meteors are from the tail of Halley’s Comet and even with all the moon light, we might see a few fireballs.

That’s why you should come join us at the George Observatory to get your front row seat to this Moon de Mayo event. In addition to the celestial show, we’ll be screening 2012: Mayan Prophecies — a fabulous Cinco de Mayo astronomy story — in our Discovery Dome.

George Observatory events begin at 3:00 p.m. with a daytime viewings and showings in the Discovery Dome of 2012: Mayan Prophecies. Telescope viewing will begin at dusk and last until 11:00 pm.

This Cinco de Mayo, you owe it yourself to look up. Spend some quality time with the supermoon at George Observatory, and don’t miss this awesome astronomical event.