"Why is it that showers and even storms seem to come by chance, so that many people think it quite natural to pray for rain or fine weather, though they would consider it ridiculous to ask for an eclipse by prayer?"

― Henri Poincaré
I have witnessed a number of lunar eclipses, several partial solar eclipses, and now a second total solar eclipse ― the recent April 8th one was absolutely incredible. After the 2017 trip to Nebraska (there are personal reasons to forget it), I wasn't sure I wanted to travel to see this one, but Sue Ulschmid convinced me to do so. Harrisburg, IL wasn't nearly as far of a drive (6 to 7 hours) and 4 minutes of totality started playing on my mind. 

What about the weather, though? Well, that's just it.
As a longtime amateur astronomer, this is the gamble with any celestial event. I was very fortunate to have clear skies for the 2004 and 2012 Venus Transits. But there have been plenty of planetary conjunctions, meteor showers, northern lights, and other astronomical phenomenon that were clouded out ― the weather gods rule by pitiless indifference to our plans and desires. There's a lot of logistical effort that goes into something like this and cloud cover can make or break it. This is often why amateur astronomers say "Clear Skies!" for a pleasant farewell. 

The trip down to Harrisburg was a bit rainy, but forecasts for eclipse day were indicating as much as 50% cloud cover. Not to worry, it would still be a decent spectacle even if totality was blocked by a large inopportune cumulus cloud. By Sunday evening, cloud cover prognostications dropped to 45%, then 35%, and then 25%. I liked the trend ― things were looking good! There was yet another decision to make come morning ― venture away from Harrisburg for clearer skies after checking GOES or stay put? At the motel there was a mix of opinions among umbraphiles on where to go.

We decided to stay put and our gamble paid off. In fact, it did so for millions of observers throughout the path of totality, except for parts of Texas and New York. Even so, sometimes eclipse photographs with clouds make for interesting composition. Still, my friend John Rummel drove during the early morning hours to get to Vermont from New York for better viewing conditions. 

While my totality exposures were set for a large solar corona, John went for a prominence shot which turned out fantastically ...
This is about what it looked like viewing it through my Celestron 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope sans neutral density solar filter, but the prominences were more defined and seemed to almost shimmer. Naturally, solar filters are put back in place before the second Diamond Ring. 

After C3 (third contact), there was one more shot I wanted to get with the moon's silhouetted disc just touching a group of sunspots ...
With events like this, sometimes I ponder if there was anything I could have done differently to make the experience better. I get so excited I tend to forget about my gear and photographic plans, like forgetting to take the ND filter off the C8 at totality for the first minute. It was fine, because I was busy digiscoping it with my spotter, and Sue was using her Nikon and 200mm lens to take photos. Sue looked into the C8 and said "Hey, I can't see anything!" I quickly popped off the solar filter and took a peak and was gobsmacked by how cool it looked. Almost immediately, I called nearby eclipse observers over to take a peak who didn't have optics ― they were blown away. Sue and I enjoyed taking turns looking the C8, and then just staring up at the sky. Suddenly, the Diamond Ring flashed and totality was over. 

I wish I could relive those 4 minutes.

All in all it was a super-successful trip. There won't be another total solar eclipse in the US until 2044 (Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota), which would put me at 77. Maybe I'll still be around, maybe not. The April 8th 2024 total solar eclipse will be tough to beat!


I had heard that one news reporter was so enthralled viewing the eclipse at totality that in his excitement he blurted out "Only god could do this!' Well, here's an experiment for you. All you need is a flashlight and two small rocks (perhaps a small one to represent the moon, and a larger one for Earth). Line them up with the flashlight turned on so that one rock is occulted by the other. So, there you go ― now you're god. Solar system "rocks" are just larger and eclipses are perfectly naturally occurring phenomenon that do not require the divine to explain or understand them.

Most images © 2024 Mike McDowell