Sun of a gun
A long, flat cloud hovering over the western horizon obscured the annular phase of Sunday’s solar eclipse, but those who made the march out to the Jansky Very Large Array didn’t let it rain on their parade.
“It didn’t help,” Gerry Klinglesmith said of the stubborn patch of condense water vapor that hardly moved for hours, “but it was better than if (the eclipse) was blocked out completely.”
Klinglesmith was one of hundreds who came out to the world famous array of radio telescopes on the Plains of San Agustin about 20 miles west of Magdalena. And when the sun’s crescent finally sunk below the Gallinas Mountains, she, and the others, didn’t go home disappointed.
“I’m married to an astronomer; I’ve seen a lot of eclipses,” said Klinglesmith, who’s husband, Dr. Dan Klinglesmith, works at Magdalena Ridge Observatory and viewed the event with other VIPs from there. “People who have never seen one were thrilled.”
It was a rare opportunity to witness a unique phenomenon seldom seen not only in these parts, but anywhere in the world.
What made this one special was that it was an annular eclipse. That is, the moon appeared slightly smaller than the sun in the sky. So when they were perfectly aligned with the earth, the sun appears as a ring of fire, or annulus, surrounding the outline of the moon.
While Albuquerque was perfectly aligned for an annular eclipse, the VLA wasn’t far off the mark. About 90 percent of the sun was blocked by the new moon from its perspective.
The next annular eclipse won’t appear on the U.S. mainland for another 11 years.
Very Large Turnout
The VLA, known for capturing out-of-this-world spectacles, happily hosted all comers.
“We’ve had close to 250 people here for the two tours this afternoon,” said Judy Stanley, education officer for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which operates the VLA. “The VLA will be observing the eclipse, so we have a group of astronomers here as well.”
Many of the amateur astronomers stayed for the eclipse. Just outside the visitor’s center, Stanley handed out safe solar glasses, administered to two telescopes specially equipped with filters so to view the sun, and three Sunspotters, low-tech mechanisms that project an indirect image of the sun.
“It’s a safe solar telescope,” she said of the Sunspotter. “You don’t look at the sun at all. In fact, you have your back to the sun.”
The sun’s rays pass through a lens in front; pin holes direct beams of light onto mirrors, which reflect the image onto a white sheet of paper at the base. With it, magnetic storms, or sun spots, can be detected. It also works well for tracking solar eclipses.
Many people came equipped with more sophisticated devices. Among them was John Briggs, the astronomer is residence at the HUT Observatory in Eagle, Colo., operated by a non-profit group that serves educational purposes.
Briggs is also an astrophotographer. He was out to take video of the event that would be shown to students and perhaps posted on You Tube.
“This telescope here has a special filter built into it to show the sun in hydrogen alpha light, which allows the details to surface,” he explained. “Most filters show the sun with sun spots and the face of the sun will be fundamentally white. You see many more features with hydrogen alpha light, which is the natural red light of energy hydrogen gas.”
Briggs had positioned himself out on the access road by the tracks used to transport the VLA gigantic antennas.
He wasn’t alone. Another 50 or so people parked in that area, including a contingent from SALSA, the San Antonio (Texas) League of Sidewalk Astronomers.
“I saw the (eclipse) track and decided this would be a good place to come see it,” said Brian Tobias, a SALSA member. “I know Albuquerque is ground zero, but we’re all science geeks. There’s nothing that would be as photogenic as these dishes. I talked to the other members about coming here, and they were like, road trip!”
The group of about 15 people stopped at McDonald Observatory in Ft. Davis, Texas, on their way. Another day’s drive got them to the VLA in time for the big event.
“I’m here for one shot,” Tobias said. “The sun is going to set right down the line of the array. That’s the one I’m after.”
A Sight to See
Back at the visitor’s center, the crowd waited in anticipation as the sun tracked its downward slant across the sky.
“Are those clouds going to be a problem?” one onlooker asked Stanley.
She avoided the question, no doubt thinking wishfully that they would not.
Meanwhile, Ephraim Ford fired up his camp stove. The deputy electronics division head at NRAO in Socorro came out with his family and those of a few of friends.
Ford came prepared.
“I precooked some burgers and hot dogs; we’re having fun out here,” he said.
Ford had also bought some solar sage glasses in advance and rigged up a pair of binoculars with solar filters. He also made a custom cap with a filter to place over a camera lens.
“The main reason for coming out is to get them interested,” he said, referring to his two boys, age 3 and 5. “They’re kind of young. They’ll be more excited for the (eclipses) coming up in 2017 and ’24.”
While the Fords had a relatively short distance to travel, two couples came all the way from Chicago.
Barbara Schleck and Gary Ropski planned the trip as part of a celebration of their 30th wedding anniversary.
“We like to chase eclipses and have never seen an annular eclipse, so we thought it was too good of an opportunity to pass up,” said Schleck, who along with her husband have witnessed eclipses in Libya, two of them in China and one on Easter Island. “We do this because we like to travel; we planned out vacation around this eclipse. Everywhere we go, we try to add a science component.”
“And we get to see cool things like the VLA,” Ropski added, “and tonight we get to see the stars. You don’t get to see stars in Chicago.”
Jon Folks and Tina Irving arrived more spontaneously.
“We’re on vacation,” Irving said. “We heard about this and took a one-day detour. It doesn’t happen very often.”
On the Bright Side
Minutes later, at about 6:24 p.m., Stanley announced first contact. Slowly but surely, the blazing ball of fire was engulfed by an invisible moon. Nearly an hour later, it became evident the four minutes or so on annularity would be partially obscured by a cloud that seemingly refused to move. It could still be made out with the solar glasses, but the photographers and filmmakers were frustrated.
“Bummer,” Briggs said from his spot near the tracks.
Someone else tried to look at the bright side.
“The clouds kind of give it a filtering effect,” he said.
Tobias didn’t think he got the one shot he came for.
“I took about 500 shots. I’ll let you know,” he said, adding that he and his fellow SALSA members weren’t disappointed. “It’s definitely worth the trip. I’m here with friends. We’re all having a good time.”
Though a bit bummed out, Briggs was glad to have made the trip, too.
“I didn’t get sequence shot, but the main goal was getting the eclipse in progress in hydrogen light,” he said. “It would have been nice to get the classic annular. But you know what, I saw it.”
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