The Great Frozen Lunar Eclipse Adventure
(or, how to lose feeling in your extremities while taking photos in the winter night)

by Kevin Jung

It was a dark and snowy night. Well, it was semi-dark and while not actually snowing, there was a lot of snow on the ground. But it works for this story.

I had been looking forward to the February 20, 2008 total lunar eclipse for quite a while (last year, in fact). This was to be the last eclipse visible from my area until December of 2010, and while that’s only a couple of years away, it’s too long between eclipses. I had just gone through a longer drought than that, and it wasn’t pleasant. The lunar eclipse we had in March of 2007 was clouded out, and the one in August was nearly as bad; we had hazy, scummy skies at the lakeshore. So this was the last best shot for a while.

I spent the day trying to find a remote switch for my camera, among other things. But all events during the day lead up to the night.

Because it has been nearly permanently cloudy for over a month, I was sure no one had been up to the observatory (James C. Veen Observatory in Lowell, Michigan), so that meant the road probably hadn’t been plowed. In the past, this would not have been a problem, as a friend of mine cleared it off with his plow truck. However, the truck - a 1964 Toyota - finally died a horrible, lingering death last fall, so now there’s no free plow service. And we don’t even want to think how much a real plow service would charge for a .33 mile road and lot. No way.

The Clear Sky Clock for the observatory was indicating that it might be at least partly cloudy for the event, so I made plans to go up and shoot the eclipse through one of the telescopes. And that meant getting the road cleared off. After some phone calls, we got someone to go up and take care of it. I was getting all my stuff ready to go out there in the evening, when Ron called and said "I hope people appreciate this." It was a major pain (actually he said something not appropriate for kids) to clear the road. It was ice/snow/ice/snow - about two feet deep. They had to plow five feet, back up, then five feet more, etc. And then they couldn’t get the whole upper lot cleared, but there was enough for six or seven cars. Yeah, I guess we’d better appreciate it.

So I pack everything in the car: cameras (digital and film) and laptop, snow shovel (you never know), and road salt (again, because you never know) and headed out to the observatory. The skies as I left the house were crystal clear, and it looked to be a great, albeit cold, night.

As I’m driving towards the observatory, I notice something I don’t want to see: clouds. Sure, the moon was shining through breaks in the clouds, but there were clouds nonetheless. As I got closer and closer, the clouds got thicker and thicker. When I finally got to the bottom of the observatory drive, the whole sky was covered. This did not bode well for our hero. But the Clear Sky Clock had it “sort of cloudy” for the 8pm block, so I was hoping that it would clear out. I had a backup plan: I would wait around at the observatory until 9.30, and if it didn’t’ clear out I would race back to Grand Rapids to a church I know, as I’ve used their lit steeple for moon shots before. So on up the road I go. It is now 7.30pm.

I made it up fine, but was then glad for the shovel, because I had to then shovel my way to the door of the building. Remember, no one had been there since January. So I struggled to shovel a path through the previously mentioned two feet of ice/snow/ice/snow and cleared the steps. I then opened the door and went inside ten minutes later. And because it was still cloudy, I didn’t bother to bring in any of my equipment. Why haul it all inside if I can’t use it there, right?

I immediately turn the furnace up, so the library will get warm, and where I can go to warm up. I then ascend the stairs of the west dome to get everything uncovered and opened. Because of previous problems with the dome slit opening (the bottom shutter sticks to the top sometimes in the winter), I immediately tried to open the dome: yep, the shutters were stuck. And with the moon being high on the ecliptic, I needed the lower shutter to stay down. So I lowered the shutter to just above the rim, and went downstairs to the utility room to find tools. I found a hammer with a head falling off, and an old screwdriver, which I took up into the dome and proceeded to knock apart the shutters. After some straining, sweating, and cursing, the two pieces came apart! Hurrah!! I then opened the shutter, and as it was opening, I beheld a clear sky!! Yes, while I was working on the dome, the skies cleared out. I just hope they were clear all over (since I was looking northwest).

I then went over and flipped the switch to turn the dome, and guess what? The dome didn’t turn!! All the freezing and thawing had frozen the dome in place. I now had to - while working the motor switch - manhandle the dome back and forth. After a while I got it to go most of the way around, but it stuck just short of the position I needed it to be to get the moon in the telescope view. (the good news is, while turning the dome, I saw that it was indeed clear from horizon to horizon, and the full moon shone brightly into the dome.) I backed the dome around half way, climbed up on the desk, and as it came back around pulled as hard as I could until the dome moved past the position where I had to have it for the event. And even then, it wouldn’t go any farther north in that direction. There was much snow out on the roof leaning against the dome. I was lucky to get it to move that far.

All of this took about one half hour. It was now 8.15pm.

I then turned on the power to the telescopes, uncovered them, and went back down to my car to haul in my gear. I then received a call from one of the other observers who was watching the eclipse from the warm comfort of his living room window. He asked if I saw any shadowing yet, which I told him I did. The partial umbral phase wasn’t supposed to begin (first contact) until 8.43, but as the moon got closer to the umbra, there was definite darkening of its leading edge.

I attached my digital camera to the telescope I was going to use for the evening, a four-inch Takahashi refractor. It is perfect size to allow the entire disc of the moon to fill the frame. Our other telescope in the dome, a sixteen inch, is too powerful for this situation. I then rotated the camera to the correct position, centered the image, and attempted to focus.

Focusing a digital SLR is extremely different than focusing a film camera, primarily because the focusing screen isn’t really designed for manual work. It’s rare for a photographer with a digital camera to manually focus his images all the time. While it takes just seconds to focus using my film camera, this new digital took a bit of doing. And still, to be sure, I took a few shots of the moon, removed the card from the camera, and loaded the images into my computer to check the focus. After three attempts, I got acceptable focus. Now to wait for the main event.

I wasn’t going to take a lot of photos of the partial phases of the eclipse, because I have seen many eclipses over the years, and have many photos of the non-totality phases. I just wanted totality and near totality. Heck, I have a whole series of images from the August 1989 eclipse where I shot every five to ten minutes for the whole eclipse. Believe me; I’ve got partial phase images!

During this time, I’ve been receiving a few phone calls from other people about the event, and then one of the other club members came up to check it out with me. He went up in the dome while I warmed up a bit. I then got a call from my friend Sharon and her sister Sally, who missed the turn to the road and needed a bit of direction clarification. I soon had them pointed up the observatory drive. They arrived and brought their cameras in, and I showed them up to the dome. The girls hadn’t been here before, so they were taking it all in. I showed them the moon through the scope (albeit through the viewfinder of my camera, but still…) and they got their stuff ready to shoot.

To fast forward a bit, there was swapping of cameras for a while as all three of us took turns shooting photos as the moon got closer and closer to totality.

When totality arrived, I took a couple of images, and then let them have a go, and then told them we needed to go outside. When we walked out the door, it was a different sky than when they arrived, as the formerly bright full moon was replaced by a dim, reddish full moon. The surrounding stars, once dim or invisible because of moonlight, now blazed forth in their glory. I took a few minutes to point out some constellations for them with the laser, and then got to work on my next task: a wider-angle shot of the eclipse.

Just a note on the eclipse itself. We saw a hint of turquoise at times, and during mid-totality it seemed to be darker then the previous eclipses. Must have been stuff in the atmosphere causing it. Definitely darker than the January 2000 eclipse, when I previously froze taking photos.

I put my lens back on my camera, took it downstairs, put it on the tripod, and went back outside. I had been thinking of how I could get an “artsy” image of the eclipse (my idea from the summer one was to get the eclipsed moon right next to the lighthouse on the lake, but it didn’t turn out), so I went around to the back side of the observatory where I could see the moon hovering above the dome. Perfect spot. I then proceeded to take a few photos, bracketing the exposures and painting the dome with a flashlight to get it to show up in the images. I did this for a few minutes, and when I really couldn’t feel my fingers and toes, trudged through the deep snow back to the building, and told the girls they could go back up and shoot through the scope more, as I was going to warm up in the library. I did that until I could feel things again, and then went up to the dome, joining the girls as they were having fun taking shot after shot. I took a few more as we got halfway out of the eclipse, and then left them to shoot what they wanted.

We took a break for a while to warm up again, and I showed them the AV presentation, and we chatted a while about astronomy, photography, etc. We then went back up to the dome, where the un-eclipsing moon was getting brighter and brighter, and they decided to pack it up and go home. As we packed up, I moved the scope over and showed them Saturn through the main scope, and the Mars, and then the Orion Nebula. Geeked was about the right word to describe how they felt, and they promised themselves they were going to come back again and again and see more things, and photograph more things.

I closed the dome, covered the instruments, and we took our equipment out to our respective vehicles. I closed up the observatory, followed them down the drive, and went home. It was just after midnight.

Arriving home, I lugged my stuff in the house, transferred the images from the camera to the laptop, and then took it downstairs and worked on the images while I warmed up. After about a half-hour I could feel all my toes and fingers, so I finished with the photos for the night, uploaded a couple to some websites, emailed to people, and finally went to bed (a nice, warm, toasty bed) just before 3.00am. A full, rich (and cold) day.

Now I can't wait for December 2010, and the next eclipse.


Return to the Articles Page