I fell in to a burning ring of fire
I went down,down,down
and the flames went higher.
And it burns,burns,burns
the ring of fire
the ring of fire.
Suggested music to listen: Johnny Cash, The ring of fire ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mIBTg7q9oNc or http://grooveshark.com/s/Ring+Of+Fire/4fpuL9?src=5 )
On May 20th 2012, an annular eclipse of the sun was visible from China, Japan and parts of the West in the USA (see this map). For those of you not familiar with it, an annular eclipse of the sun is when the Sun and Moon are exactly in line, but the apparent size of the Moon is smaller than that of the Sun. Hence the Sun appears as a very bright ring, or annulus, surrounding the outline of the Moon (definition from Wikipedia).
From Bloomington, Indiana we would see only a partial eclipse, with ~40% of the sun being covered by the moon just before sunset. To see the unique spectacle of an annular eclipse, I flew 1,500 miles away, drove almost a thousand miles, carried about 200 pounds of stuff (telescope, tripods, cameras, …) for about 1 mile on a trail at 10,000 feet elevation and took over 4,000 pictures to share with you.
A very long preparation, a lot of efforts and guess what … it was worth it!
And if you are wondering: “why so many pictures?”. Well, the answer is: so that I can make time-lapse movies, like this one (HD link: http://youtu.be/SxKcPXVoufg?hd=1)
Part one: before the eclipse
After spending hours to search for the best location to view the eclipse I decided to go to Albuquerque, New Mexico and observe the eclipse from Sandia Peak, a 10,000 feet high mountain offering amazing views at the western horizon. Because the eclipse would still be ongoing at sunset, it was important to find a clear (and if possible) beautiful west horizon. Alternative observing spots (in case of bad weather forecast for Albuquerque) included Page, Arizona and Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona. Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend (Glen Canyon) or Canyon de Chelly would have been beautiful places to visit. But from there, the eclipse would be almost over at sunset, preventing me from taking THE picture of the eclipsed sunset that I’ve been dreaming of.
April 7th, 2012: I book my flight to Phoenix, this trip is starting to be real! Phoenix is only a 7 hours drive away from Albuquerque and it offers cheap direct flights from Indianapolis. It’s also a convenient location if I need to change my observation spot due to bad weather forecast (Page, AZ is only 5 hours drive away) and it’s a good occasion to go visit Maria, a friend of mine who is currently living in Phoenix.
From Bloomington, IN to Albuquerque, NM
On Friday (May 18th, 2012) I leave work early in the afternoon to catch my flight. From the plane, after about 2 hours of flight, I can see Albuquerque and the Sandia Peak mountain, my future observing spot! Hum, it’s kind of cloudy today, let’s hope that in two days we will have a better weather.
After we have passed Albuquerque, the views from the plane became just incredible. All this land is absolutely empty and dry. All you see is a desert landscape with canyons, red soils and from time to time a little bit of green. Approaching Phoenix, I can see some of the forest fires that Arizona is currently enduring, then the mountains and finally the city of Phoenix itself is there.
After getting my checked luggages, I go rent a car and wait for Maria who was flying back from North Carolina. Her plane lands at midnight, so we did not went home until 1am … That’s the beginning of a long series of sleep deprivation!
On Saturday afternoon, after watching the soccer game (champions league final, both Maria and I are soccer fans so we could not miss this game…) we hit the road, direction: Albuquerque. The weather forecast is not perfect (~30% of clouds coverage at the time of the eclipse according to www.wunderground.com) I’m starting to get stressed. Should we go to Page, AZ instead of Albuquerque? Let see what the weather forecast says tomorrow, the eclipse is in the afternoon, so there is time to drive from Albuquerque to another place…
We arrive in Albuquerque at 1am, check in at the Best Western Executive suites and go get some sleep.
Part II: Eclipse day: gambling and winning…
Sunday morning, after a detour to the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel (Maria collects the Hard Rock Café souvenirs) we go in direction of Sandia Crest, our observation spot. The weather forecast is still calling for ~30% of cloud coverage in the afternoon and we still have time to go to an alternative observing spot with a better weather forecast (Page and Canyon de Chelly both had much better weather forecast). But after spending one dollar in a slot machine at the Hard Rock Casino, I feel like a gambler and I bet that the clouds will not block the view from Sandia Crest.
The road to the top of Sandia Peak is an enchantment, especially after the highway across Albuquerque (not really a beautiful city in itself). At noon, we park at the end of road, on Sandia Crest, at about 10,000 feet (~3000 meters) elevation. From there, the views are amazing. The main viewpoint is already occupied by some astronomers with telescopes and camera but this is not a problem to me, the spot I want to observe from is about a mile away, at the Kiwanis cabin. Maria and I start hiking in direction of the Kiwanis cabin and we can enjoy some beautiful aerial views along the trail.
At the Kiwanis cabin, we climb on the roof of the cabin and start setting up the equipment on the North-West corner of the roof, the best one to view the eclipse. I have to go back to the car twice to bring all the equipment (5 tripods, 1 telescope, 4 cameras, …) and set up everything. It is ~2pm and from time to time some clouds block the view at the sun but I’m not worried, it’s gonna be clear sky at the time of the eclipse, it has to be…
More and more people are passing by, some of them take a look at the sun through the telescope (when the clouds allow it), the wait for the eclipse has started.
Waiting for the eclipse…
The eclipse will not start until 6.30pm, so we have plenty of time and we start talking with Amanda and Alex, two super nice persons that we met on the roof of the Kiwanis cabin. That’s the great thing about the eclipse, it brings together people from different horizon and it’s a great opportunity to meet new people. I must admit that Amanda even becomes my favorite person in the World when she takes out of her bag a bottle of Porto to share with us. Sometime around 5pm, the park rangers come tell us that it’s not safe to stay on the roof of the cabin, so we have to get all the equipment down. No big deal, I still have plenty of time to (re) setup everything before the eclipse starts and the view from the ground is almost as good as from the roof of cabin.
And time starts moving faster…
6.28pm, Maria who was looking through the telescope shouts out: it’s started ! I can see it!!! Quickly after that, the portion of the Sun that is obscured by the Moon has became big enough to be visible with the naked eye (through the eclipse shade of course). I can feel the excitement growing among the dozens of people looking at the eclipse around us. With the telescope we can see not only the surface of the sun, but also the protuberances (solar flares) being swallowed slowly by the Moon as it keeps moving across the Sun. At some point I remove the eyepiece and attach the camera to the telescope to take pictures. However, it goes so fast that I don’t want to waste too much time adjusting the focus (it can take dozens of minutes to achieve a good focus through the telescope), so please forgive me if these pictures are a bit blurry.
The Moon now covers about 50% of the surface of the Sun and with the telescope we can easily see the relief on the edge of Moon. As we approach the totality, time moves faster and faster. It feels like the eclipse started a minute ago but it’s actualy almost 7.30pm and the Sun is now a magnificent, thin cresent of light.
The ring of fire
A couple more minutes to go, and the Moon is entirely in front of Sun, giving to the Sun the shape of a ring of fire. People start applauding and cheering, that’s the spirit of an eclipse. The ring of fire is there for only 4 minutes and I try to enjoy the view through the telescope but also to take some pictures. To me, the view through the simple eclipse shades is the best. Just the Sun, the Moon, and my eyes… The feeling is hard to describe but trust me, it’s powerful.
And it’s already the end of the ring of fire, the Moon keeps moving and it’s now a growing crescent of Sun that we can see. Most people leave and hike back to the parking… They don’t know that they will miss the best part of the spectacle: the sunset while the Sun is still partially eclipsed.
A magical sunset
For the sunset, we can remove the eclipse shades and enjoy the views of the partially eclipsed sun directly with our eyes. I have 3 cameras taking pictures automatically (with a remote control) and use a 4th one to take more pictures with varying the settings. We can hear the crackling of the cameras taking the pictures. Only a couple of minutes left before the Sun disappears behind the slopes of Mont Taylor in the distance. Maria and Amanda want to take pictures of us with the sunset in the background. I move the tripod backward and try to fit both us in the foreground and the sunset in the background but in the precipitation we end up blocking the view at the sun on most of the pictures 😦 Still, I manage to get some okay pictures of the eclipsed sunset with in the foreground the silhouettes of Amanda, Maria and Alex. Mission accomplished!
The movie of the sunset in time-lapse (use this link for HD http://youtu.be/8myTpLrTFMQ?hd=1) :
Here is a collage, showing the different parts of the eclipse over Albuquerque:
Back to reality…
The sun is now behind the horizon, it’s time to pack all the equipment and bring it back to the car. It’s getting really cold but I’m way too excited to feel it. With the night falling we can now see Venus shining above Albuquerque. The city lights are dancing in the distance, I take a last pictures for the photo montage and with the help of Amanda we manage to bring all the equipment back to the car at once. It’s now time to say good bye to Amanda, and get back on the road. At 5am, we are back in Phoenix, exhausted but happy.
After a couple of hours of sleep, a quick lunch with Maria and her friends, it’s time for me to say good bye, go back to airport, and fly back to Indianapolis with my head full of memories.
Acknowledgments. I’m really lucky to have such amazing friends who made this trip possible. Thank you Maria for hosting me in Phoenix and for sharing these unique moments with me. Thank you Amanda and Alex, it was great meeting you guys and sharing some Porto (and good memories) with you. Thank you Erkin and Kristin for lending me your cameras. And thank you Lydia for picking me at the airport at almost 1am!!! You guys rock.