WAITING FOR THE
SOLAR AND LUNAR
On Friday March 20th 2015, a total solar eclipse was
visible from the north Atlantic ocean. This eclipse was eclipse number 60 of 71 eclipses in Saros 120. Saros 120 began on May 27,
933 AD. All 71 eclipses of this saros series occur on the Moons
descending node with the Moon moving northward with each eclipse.
The 2015 eclipse was the second last total eclipse in the Saros.
The last 9 eclipses in the Saros are all partial.
The March 20, 2015, Total Solar Eclipse, Spitzbergen, Svalbard
eclipse began in the North Atlantic Ocean south of Greenland and finished at the North
Pole. Its path avoided all major landmasses leaving eclipse chasers
with limited options. The only landfalls were two island groups, The
Faroe Islands and Svalbard. Other options included observations from cruise
ships at sea or aircraft intercepts.
Click here to skip the travel log and jump straight to the eclipse report and photos.
Aurora Observing and photography
Prior to traveling to Svalbard, my friend Bengt Alfredsson and I spent a week in the Tromsø region observing aurorae.
We observed and photographed two spectacular events. Click here to view my Aurora photographs and description.
Sea ice seen on approach to Longyearbyen
was in my 20's and 30's, I'd spend almost every weekend of winter and
spring going cross country skiing. If there was snow on the ground in
the Australian Snowy Mountains, you'd find me there. I went ski mountaineering on
glaciers in New Zealand and in Europe. Some people shut down and
hibernate in the cold. I love it. Cold
weather invigorates me. I love the feel of icy cold wind on my
My regular observing partner, Bengt
Alfredsson is from Sweden. He, predictably, hates the cold.
Nonetheless, when we began considering this eclipse back in 2011, it
didn't take long for us to agree on the Arctic environment of Svalbard.
Weather prospects, though poor, we better than the other landfall.
Neither of us like air or ship platforms.
Intimidating climate statistics indicated possible temperatures anywhere between -5oC and -35oC
and high cloud percentages. I prepared my equipment and purchased
special clothing suitable for these conditions. I built a power
supply powered by Li Fe S2 batteries capable of working at very low temperatures.
It needed to be able to power my
telescope motor drive and camera to -40oC if necessary. I equipped one
DSLR with the same low temperature lithium iron disulphide batteries in
its battery grip. My other mirror-less camera could only take one standard
lithium ion rechargeable battery.
charter flight operator imposed a 16kg checked bag limit and 6.5kg
This made life very difficult. My suitcase is strong but weighs
4kg. That left me
with 12kg for the contents. The tour company advised us to bring
lightweight nylon bag but this was not going to protect equipment
sufficiently. Every item was carefully considered before it went in the
case. We flew in over the sea ice. From the plane, it looked like
the sea ice
were tessellated tiles, covering the Arctic Ocean in great floating
We lined up for approach. The pilot warned us that the landing might be
rough. The runway was solid ice and only 2300m long. Our 737-800
had 195 seats, 25 more passengers than a normally fitted out aircraft of
this type. The touchdown was gentle enough. With the runway being solid
ice, the pilot used a hard reverse thrust to bring the plane to a
screeching halt. The plane was hot and stuffy. On the flight, I was
wearing a tee shirt and track pants and carrying my freezer suit in lieu of a jacket.
No room to change on the plane so I disembarked in the tee shirt.
It was -12oC on the tarmac. As the icy wind hit me, I felt that same feeling I used to get when ski touring. Ahhh, alive again!
Inside the terminal I slipped into my warm suit and we headed out to
bus that transported us to our accommodation, the old miners barracks
now trading as the
Spitzbergen Guesthouse. After getting our luggage to our rooms
and a quick dinner, we went outside to meet a snow cat to take us
ice caving. No rest for the wicked! Several kilometres up the
Longyearbyen glacier, we
pulled up outside an igloo. Inside the igloo we kitted up with
safety helmets, lamps and crampons. After climbing down a 6m vertical
ladder, we found ourselves in a melt water channel with spectacular ice
formations that we explored for the next few hours. Two pictures
below. A whole slide show of the ice cave can be viewed in a new window by clicking here. Close the window to return here.
Meltwater channel in Longyearbyen Glacier
broke with blue skies and light misty low level clouds cloaking the mountains.
Weather forecast for eclipse day just kept getting better and better.
Our accommodation was at the top of the valley about 3km from the
waterfront. We took a long walk to town. The morning was cold;
fifteen below zero. Because we were walking, I
didn't wear my freezer suit, just a couple of layers. This was a
bit blasé and I got a bit cold so we visited Fruene coffee shop
the "mall." After a welcome and very good cup of coffee we
walked along the waterfront. A strong breeze was cutting
through us like a knife, and so we began the 3km uphill walk back to
the guesthouse to warm up.
Above: Mountains on the opposite side of Adventfjorden to Longyearbyen.
Below : Frulene coffee shop.
also took one of the popular snow mobile tours across the island. It
took about an hour to kit up with warm suits, mitts, helmets and boots
and listen to safety briefings. Finally we were outside and ready to
head out. I was driving and my mate Bengt was my pillion
passenger. We were all dressed the same and on the same model
snowmobile looked like a bunch of henchmen out to hunt down and
assassinate James Bond. I immediately noticed that on the
chopped up and rutted ice, these vehicles were not that easy to handle.
At one point, traversing a gentle slope, I hit a bump and
suddenly we were up on one skid on our way to tipping over. I hung my
weight out and brought it back down. Bengt gave me two taps on the arm
as if to say, "wake up stupid." I seemed to be the only person
having this problem and wondered if i was doing something wrong or if
there was something wrong with the vehicle. After a few hours of
touring, I was less insecure. In the intervening period, three
snow mobiles rolled and two crashed into each other. Fortunately
nobody was seriously hurt. At some of the rest stops I spoke to others
who admitted they were not finding them easy to handle. On virgin snow,
I think these things would be great fun. On the hard packed highly used
tracks to Tempelfjorden, they were less fun and more of a means of
transport. Nonetheless they are a very capable vehicle that transported
us to some fantastic scenery pictured below.
Images taken during a 160km/ 8hr snowmobile tour to Tempelfjorden
By the start of totality, the temperature was on its descent from -16oC to -22oC
(measured at a weather station on site). Other thermometers around the
site indicated a variety of temperatures to -30 C. The liquid crystal
were exhibiting significant time lag. This proved problematic. I
use live view to focus but the time lag made this method basically
ineffective. As totality rapidly approached, I had to
switch to visual focusing. The focuser was shifting quite a lot
each time I tried to lock it and I did not manage to sharply focus the
image. This was not normal behaviour for this focuser and I assumed it
shrinkage issue associated with the cold. Annoying but one of the
many problems these conditions presented.
eclipse morning, I went to the observing site 2hrs before first
contact. The sky was almost completely clear save a few clouds out to
sea low on the west horizon. The air was a crisp -16oC
and burnt the nose with each breath. My clothing worked very
well. I felt very warm, even hot at times while others around me
were jogging on the spot trying to keep warm.
set up the Losmandy Starlapse system. I had done what little tool
assembly was required in the warmth of my hotel room the previous day.
Fortunately, assembling the system only required dovetails and
It only took a few minutes to complete. I used my polar alignment jig to
align the polar axis. The jig enabled me to polar align the mount
good enough for solar eclipse photography in about 1-2 minutes.
About 15mins before
first contact, I installed batteries in the two cameras. The
K-01 mirror-less camera is powered by a single internal D-Li-90 battery & internally
programmed to shoot a wide-angle time lapse of 770 discreet fish-eye
frames at 1 frame per 2s over 25 minutes starting 8 minutes before
The K-5 was powered by one internal D-Li-90 lithium ion rechargeable battery and 6x AA size, Li Fe S2
non-recharge batteries in a battery grip.
The K-5 has a 5-frame per second drive, and 3 or 5
step bracket. I set the bracket to 2ev per step and 5 steps giving a
ten-stop range. I can do this completely by touch without looking
camera or telescope so that I can visually enjoy the entire eclipse. On
installing the batteries and powering up, I noted that the LCD
displays were responding very slowly due to the cold. The K-01 with a wide-angle lens was set up to capture time-lapse, the
other was attached to the prime focus of a 70mm f6 refractor. I started the time-lapse 8
minutes before totality and left it ticking away. More detail about this on the tech page.
to tell under the Michelin Man suit but the glowing ball of yellow is
me setting up the Losmandy Starlapse system at the eclipse site. I'm
using the ultralight tripod from my older lightweight mount, a
78.5 degree homemade equatorial wedge and the Losmandy Starlapse head.
I brought two pieces of lightweight insulating closed cell foam mat.
One to stop the tripod legs slipping if we were on ice, the other for
me. This turned out to be a very wise move. The mat gave me
protection from the -20oC ground. At one stage, I knelt briefly of bare snow, my knee started to burn with frostbite immediately.
|Armed guards patrolled the site perimeter to guard against possible attacks by polar bears.
a way to go! A small group observe the eclipse from this hot air
balloon that launched from Adventdalen Glacier near our observing site.
my prime focus exposure sequence procedure uses auto-bracketing, I do
change the base shutter speed 4 times down and then 4 times up during
the eclipse to cover all shutter speeds I want. This results in
substantial repetition of exposures giving me plenty of data to average
for noise reduction or use in other ways. I do this by feel, counting
two clicks (2x0.5eV)
per 1 stop of shutter speed change without the need to look at the
camera. Each bracketing sequence takes about 1 second until the
exposures become so long that the cumulative exposure length exceed the
frame rate or the buffer fills up. I only have to do 4 double clicks
with two 5 frame bursts for each. Explained in detail on the tech page.
Shadow bands were clearly visible dancing on the pearly white snow for many seconds before
totality. The layer of white snow on the ground provided an ideal
surface on which to observe those shadow bands. The crescent
thinned to a sliver, Baily’s beads appeared then faded as a
spectacular long lasting diamond ring formed.
Here comes the shadow! View the whole wide field totality flash slide show. Opens in a new window. Close window to return here. The intrusion on the left is the solar filter on my refractor.
Diamond ring at the beginning of totality
Many seconds before
totality, I could clearly see the chromosphere and inner corona on
other limb of the sun to the thinning solar crescent. I don't time
these things but it seemed earlier than at previous eclipses.
This was probably due to a lack of flare and scattered light due to the crystal clear Arctic air.
The diamond ring also seemed
to last a relatively long time. I am reluctant to place too much weight
on this observation without timings. Time perception during a
total eclipse is notoriously inaccurate. Jay Anderson quoted someone as
saying that "all total solar eclipses last 8 seconds." The diamond ring
eventually faded and the corona expanded as my eyes adapted to the low
light levels eyes. It was
strongly asymmetric making it look as though it was
“windblown” to one side
with the wind coming from the
southeast extending the corona to the northwest. It was a typical corona for a solar cycle transitioning towards
grand display ended with a dazzling diamond ring and
bands. It was a stunning eclipse in a magical setting. Even
though my gloves were thin, I removed my right glove just before
totality for extra dexterity to adjust the shutter speed dial.
During that three minutes, I felt my fingertips freezing and
burning with frost bite. I wrapped my fingers into my warm palms every
chance in between exposure adjustments. No great harm done, I felt some
discomfort for a few days but no reddening or whitening of the skin nor
any permanent damage.
The mountains hid the reddish sky that I was sure was below the
eclipse. Some orange hues could be seen out to sea in the west. Looking
around, the landscape was strangely monochromatic. Steely grey blues
and greys predominated. This suited the temperatures which I later
learned fell to -22oC. It was an incredible experience.
Meanwhile my fingers kept adjusting and snapping the telephoto
sequence almost without thought. It was a procedure that I knew
well after having practiced and performed it many times at previous
eclipses. I don't even need to practice it any more. I did
glance at the camera and noticed that the display was malfunctioning.
No problem, I had the shutter speed ranges in my head. Hopefully
it was just a display and not part of a feedback loop so its operation
was not required.
stunning totality and it was clear! Despite the daunting weather
prospects, we woke to slightly cloudy skies that quickly cleared giving
us a memorable view of the eclipse with long diamond rings, dramatic
shadow bands, and a stunning corona. Solar north is up and tilted
23o to the right. Note the structure typical of a developing
solar minimum, fine polar brushes and bigger broader equatorial coronal
streamers. This corona composite is a radial composite composed of 15
different exposures used for the underlying radial composite then many
extra images used to fill in details and voids. Radial composite image
exposures taken with 70mm f6 APO refractor, Pentax K5, ISO100, 1/4000s
– 1/4s at 1 stop intervals.
A Larson-Sekanina filter with 1o rotations applied in
Adobe Photoshop CS3. This was primarily to recover detail lost by poor
focusing. The Crayford focuser was not behaving in the cold possibly
due to shrinkage. It became slightly loose so that the locking screw
caused focus shift. Some smart sharpening and some layer blending was
then applied to complete this composite. The star 1 solar diameter from
the limb at the 2 o'clock position is HIP117887, a magnitude 5.75
Wide-field view seconds after totality began. The edge of the
umbra can be seen just to the left of the eclipsed sun where the sky
transitions from dark to light.
Diamond ring at the end of totality
as always, ended with a dazzling and long lasting diamond ring. The diamond ring at 3rd
contact always seems brighter than the diamond ring at 2nd contact because it explodes into the observer's dark adapted eyes.
There were more shadow bands and cheers from the gathered crowd. After
the eclipse, many complained that they had not obtained any
photos due to battery failure or because the LCD displays on their
cameras froze completely. We later discovered that the air temperature
dropped to -22oC during totality. My displays slowed but
never stopped and my batteries worked well. I was grateful that my
extra preparations had paid off. In the final analysis, it’s the experience not the photographs
that matter. Even for those whose cameras failed, they were still there
to witness this spectacular natural event in a spectacular location
under beautiful clear skies.
Slide shows and other material
Links to other activities -
Slide shows open in new windows. Close windows to return.