The Great North American Eclipse of 2017 - A Personal Adventure of Tom Franke and Family

preeclipse family

My first opportunity to witness a total solar eclipse was back in July 20, 1963 when we were living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was 7 years old, and therefore I had little idea of what was so important about an eclipse, nor did we take a drive up into Canada to see totality. Therefore, I just remember seeing much of the Sun being blotted out by the Moon and thinking that was pretty cool. My next opportunity to see a total eclipse was July 11, 1991, but I needed to go to my uncle's house on the Big Island of Hawaii to see it, and I was not willing to pay for the flight. The eclipse was spectacular ... if you could get to the 9000 foot parking lot up Mauna Kea and thus be above the clouds. Most of the 38,000 eclipse chasers who came to Hawaii for the big event did not see anything.

I made plans to see the Annular Solar Eclipse on May 10, 1994. I was substitute teaching at Hopkins High School and I invited a group of students to travel with me in a borrowed van. I scoped out the place where we could be in the center of the path of totality, and thus witness the Moon fitting perfectly across the disk of the Sun to create a "ring of fire" picture. I chose a state park in southern Illinois outside of Springfield, Illinois for just that spot, and away to the event the 5 students and I went. We picked our camping spot around 5:00 PM and there was only one other group of people in the area. By 6:00, cars and vans from across the midwest rolled into the same park and by dusk, the camping area was literally filled with eclipse chasers who, like us, were setting up their telescopes. That night was a long "star party" as different groups of people focused their telescopes on different areas of the night sky, and we all hopped from spot to spot sharing in the joy of a clear night sky with our new "friends." We clicked best with a team of Astronomy buffs from Des Moines, Iowa and swapped stories until well after 2:00 am. The following morning greeted us with perfectly blue skies and we had such a great time looking at the eclipse with our eclipse glasses, through the telescope, and witnessing the darkening sky in mid-day. I was nervous with anticipation that my camera pictures through the telescope would turn out, and I had to wait for a day while the film was developed to see if I was successful. Back then, digital cameras were still a dream. The pictures turned out, and it was a great day for all of us. I was determined that I would not missed the next one ... a total solar eclipse visible in the contiguous 48 states on August 21, 2017. That's right ... I waitied 23 years for this day, and I was NOT going to miss it.

I made my reservations at a hotel in Grand Island, Nebraska by August 24, 2016, and even a year in advance, there were no hotel rooms available west of that city all the way to Wyoming because other space geeks like me were doing the same advance planning. I chose Nebraska because the odds of a clear sunny day in August were good, and the center of the path of totality went through the town, giving my a maximum of 2 minutes and 20 seconds of totality. Sunday morning, August 20, 2017, my wife and I were finally on our way to see the Total Eclipse of the Sun.  

eclipse map of totality 1

path of totality map 2

When the New Moon comes exactly between the Sun and the Earth, the shadow of the total eclipse is pretty small relative to the entire planet. In fact, this particular shadow would be only 70 miles wide. If I could find a spot in the very center of that shadow path, I would witness a solar eclipse that would last about 2.5 minutes. Being a complete science geek, I wanted a spot on that exact center line. Just outside of Grand Island was a shooting range where free parking tickets were being offered, and that spot was on the center of the path of totality. My wife and I ordered two different spots. As we were driving south, my daughter and her boyfriend were coming west from Wheaton College to join in the great event. 

While we were eating dinner at 8:00 pm, we looked one more time at the weather forecast for Grand Island (something I had been doing several times a day over the previous 15 days). It was pretty grim. My wife wanted to stay where we were, but the probaability of cler skies for the eclipse were VERY low, and I had waited 23 years for this single day. I started looking at the weather forecasts to the west, and we would need to go pretty far in order to get clear skies. When our daughter said, "Dad ... we've come this far, it would be a shame to miss it," I was elated because that comment was the impetus to make the decision. We decided as a group that we had come this far ... so a little more driving would not be that big a deal. I had already scoped out three potential sites, and thus we decided to go west. We awoke at 3:30 am and were in the truck by 4:00 and heading west on I80. Dense fog settled in by 5:00 and we could barely see in front of our truck ... but we kept up the pace because I knew that traffic would be heavy with other geeks like me doing the same thing. I had set up 4 different locations on my Weather App so we could look at spots that were not only on the center of the path of totality, but also which offered us the best chance of seeing the eclipse instead of being clouded over. Scottsbluff, Agate, and Alliance were promising towns in Nebraska, but we all settled on Torrington, Wyoming because the forecast there showed little sun icons all morning and early afternoon. Besides, it was only 450 miles from Grand Island ... a mere six hours.

I encountered surprisingly little traffic on our drive, but the dense fog presented a serious problem because I wanted to drive fast and "get there" early enough to set up the telescopes, and the seeing in front of the truck was truly the worst I have ever experiences. I chose to exit I80 by Ogallala and get on the back-country 2-lane roads instead of more popular and wider freeways, reasoning that less cars would be there. I was wrong, and presented with the slow and more conservative drivers in front of the truck, passing anyone in the fog would be risky. With the GPS map on the truck screen, my wife would tell me when a stretch of road ahead was straight and I would put the pedal to the floor in a blind pass of the car in front. I look back at the risks we took that morning, but the fog finally improved near Scottsbluff. The best location for the eclipse was Torrington, Wyoming and a look at the clock and the mileage told us that we would make it! We found a spot where a local rancher was opening his land for $20/car. I drove by because it was NOT directly on the center of the path of totality, but my wife "encouraged" me to turn around at park on this piece of property with a bunch of other eclipse chasers. Her better judgment prevailed and we went to the extreme north end of the fenced property to get one extra second of totality. We were away from the crowd. It was 9:00 am. We were early. We were ready. We were incredibly excited as we unpacked and then set up our gear for the great moment. The gear included:

A Meade 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope with a camera mount and Thousand Oaks solar filter on a very sturdy tripod.

One Canon 7D digital camera attached to the telescope with a remote shutter release as well as a focal reducer connected to the telescope to let the entire sun fit inside the picture frame..

One Canon 5DS digital camera attached to a 300 mm f2.8 ISM telephoto lens with a 2x converter, a remote shutter release, and another Thousand Oaks solar filter.

One Canon 40D digital camera was added to get a few family pictures.

Our daughter had my IPhone camera to capture a video of of the three minutes leading up to totality when the "wall of darkness" would sweep in from the west.

Each of us had a nice pair of eclipse sunglasses that I had purchased via my Astronomy Magazine.

At 10:26 local time, the Moon took its first little "bite" out of the sun.

About 50 yards away from our spot, a family from Aurora, Colorado was watching the eclipse, but with no gear like ours. Thankful that we had safely arrived, we began unpacking the truck bed and setting up the equipment. By 9:45 AM, we were ready for the big event. The sky was clear. The eclipse at our location was scheduled to begin at 10:25 ... so the next 40 minutes seemed to drag by unusually slowly. We wandered around the area, taking care to avoid the colonies of red ants, careful to collect a few large ground beetles for my bug collection, tossing a few old sage bushes into the wind from their imprisonment on the barbed wire fence, and visiting with a family of similar eclipse-chasers from Aurora, Colorado. We double and triple-checked all of the camera gear and made fine adjustments to the focus ... and waited.

The Sun cannot be viewed directly. In order for the cameras to take meaningful pictures of the eclipse, we needed a good filter over the telescope. The Thousand Oaks filter from California proved to be the perfect type, and we could see a streak of relatively prominent sunspots across the Sun's photosphere. These spots are the subject of a lesson in the course area entitled "Features of the Sun."

At 10:25 AM, I looked through the telescope and saw the very first indication of the Moon's presence. All solar eclipses require the New Moon to be exactly between the Sun and the Earth. I cannot adequately describe my excitement to see this picture, because it meant that we were indeed in the right place at the right time, and we were going to actually see the eclipse. Now it was a matter of following the plan. I was to take several pictures of the increasingly eclipsed Sun every five minutes on the camera attached to the telescope. Maggie was to take pictures of the Sun every five minutes on the camera that was attached to the long lens. I had ordered a solar filter that would fit over the camera lens, but when it arrived in the mail, it was NOT what I was expecting. The filter that was over the telescope was glass while the filter over the long lens was a mylar material that made the images appear white and blurry. I had an additional glass solar filter from Thousand Oaks that was 11 inches across and designed for a larger Celestron telescope. If either Cathy or Daniel would hold this filter over the camera, we could get good pictures. So, we all had jobs to do :)

eclipse starting

eclipse progression 2

One of the exciting parts of the eclipse process was watching the Moon slowly cover the Sun and seeing that progress as the Moon moved over the sunspots.

Here the Sun is 50% eclipsed, and the disc of the Moon has covered the first group of sunspots. We are 40 minutes into the eclipse event.

The Sun is about 75-80% eclipsed at this time. By now, the cattle in the field next to us are mooing nervously. The sky has darkened considerably and the wind that was present all morning has almost stopped completely. It was so eerie seeing what appeared to be the beginning of night happen at 11:30.

Only a sliver or thin crescent Sun remains in the sky. It looks just like a waning crescent Moon, except it is the Sun. My heart was beginning to race as we were a matter of minutes from totality.

A tiny sliver of the Sun was all that we could see. Maggie had started to take a video of the western horizon. For three minutes before the moment of totality, she pointed the IPhone to the west. It was crazy to watch this video later. I was too busy on the telescope, and as soon as I shot this picture with the filter in place, I told my wife to take the filter off the telescope. The fully eclipsed Sun is safe to view with the naked eye. As Cathy was taking the solar filter off of the telescope, Maggie and Daniel were sharing their excitement on the video. A literal "wall of darkness" was approaching from the west. The horizon was very dark and the sky upward from that darkness was a reverse sunset. Normally the sunset horizon is yellow closest to the horizon, then orange, red, and blue as you look upward. Here the horizon was almost black with red, orange, yellow, and blue going upward. And then Daniel can be heard on the video, "Maggie, turn around and look at the Sun." We were seeing totality. It was dark outside. The temperature was considerably cooler. There was the Sun in the sky, but instead of the Sun, it was a black circle surrounded by the white shimmering corona. It was a spectacular moment.

Just prior to the moment of totality, I pushed the remote shutter to get this picture. This picture is not process, and shows the last moments of sunlight shining through a valley on the Moon's surface. The result is an image that looks like a Diamond Ring, and this is the name that astronomers give to the moment immediately before totality.

A few seconds later, the sunlight was barely sneaking through a very valleys and mountains, and it you look at the 7 o'clock position on the image, you can see a few small bright spots of sunlight. These last bits of sunlight shining through craters and mountains on the Moon are called Bailey's Beads. I was absolutely elated to capture this photo, but when I looked more closely at the Sun through the camera that was attached to the telescope I was stunned to see bright pink solar prominences on the right side of the Sun. These are features that I was hoping to see, but not expecting. In 2017, the Sun was entered a phase in its 11-year cycle called Solar Minimum. This is a time when the Sun is typically much less active. The presence of 6 large sunspot groups should have alerted me to the possibility of seeing prominences, but it was unexpected.

This image shows the same Bailey's Beads picture as above, but I adjusted the RAW image data on the photograph by reducing the exposure level to reveal those prominences better.



The goal of any astronomer who travels to a place where a total solar eclipse will be visible is to actually see totality. This specific eclipse path has been noted for many "firsts," or "not in hundreds of years," or other amazing circumstances. I read in one source that this eclipse was the longest path over a single land mass ever. This eclipse was unlike anything in US history since 1776. This eclipse will be witnessed by more Americans than any eclipse ever. I have never personally witnessed a total eclipse of the Sun. To look through the camera that was attached to the telescope and see the corona shimmering in the sky was breathtaking. While we were at least 200 meters away from the majority of visitors on the ranch, I could hear the shouts of amazement as other eclipse chasers saw the eclipsed Sun. I looked up with my own eyes at the event and was completely stunned. Here was the black circle where the Sun used to be, surrounded by the white corona. To the right of the Sun, and clearly visible was planet Venus. To the left of the Sun was planet Jupiter. It was a spectacular sight.



I toned down the exposure of the previous image. While I could see the solar prominences with my eyes looking through the telescope, the camera had those same features obscured by the relative brightness of the corona. By reducing the exposure levels of the RAW image, I was able to reveal these prominences better. The combination of the streamers of the corona and the pink prominences was pretty cool.

When I took the eclipsed Sun picture that was captured in the RAW data image on the camera and completely reduced the exposure levels, the solar prominences became plainly visible in stark contrast to the black disc of the Moon. There were three of these huge flaming structures. The prominence that is at the two o'clock position in the image above is VERY big. Consider that 110 Earths can fit across the diameter of the Sun. I have estimated the two o'clock prominence to be roughly 50,000 km in height (37,000 miles) ... making it equal to over 4 Earths in height. Fantastic!


Overall, we had 2:15 minutes of totality. I was anxiously awaiting the end of totality. My bucket list as an astronomer had been fulfilled, but my bucket list as a photographer was one picture away. At 11:49 AM, the Sun peeked through a small depression on the Moon's surface and created a second diamond ring effect. However, this time, the diamond ring was bracketed by "baguettes" of solar prominences on either side of the diamond. For me, this was the "picture of a lifetime," and I was ecstatic. I had brought my wife, our daughter and her boyfriend on a wild chase across central and western Nebraska in the dark and fog of the morning to get THIS picture, and everything worked. I cannot express how happy I was. I submitted this same picture to SpaceWeather.com and it was included in their "Eclipse Gallery" of photographs.



There are two images above that are directly from the spaceweather.com website ... with the first being their acceptance of my picture and the second showing my picture on their gallery of eclipse pictures (mine is in the upper left).


The image above is a close-up of the Diamond Ring Effect at the very end of totality. It gives a little better look at the solar prominences.

This photograph shows the Diamond Ring Effect, but the RAW data has been adjusted with the exposure settings to reveal the subtle details of the corona a little more. Maggie captured the image below with the telephoto lens. The next picture below is the eclipse as seen with just the naked eye through a solar filter. I include this second picture because this is what people who did not have a telephoto lens or a telescope with a filter were looking at. And the nation had millions of people who were looking through cheap solar glasses to see such a tiny image because it had been so long since a total eclipse was visile over the 48 states!


eclipse with no telescope



And then it was all over. The sunlight, although coming from an incredibly small sliver, was too bright for the camera, so the solar filter was placed back on the telescope and we waited for the next 80 minutes while the Moon finished its transit across the Sun's disc.

This photograph above, and the others that follow take you though the final 80 minutes of the total eclipse experience.











It was over. We had made the sudden decision, and the decision that turned out to be the right one, to get up early in the dark and make the drive to Wyoming. We lost a few seconds of totality by parking on the ranch, but we had no curious bystanders asking to look through the telescope and we were free to do our little jobs. We had perfect weather. We had seen totality. We had captured pretty good pictures for the admittedly amateur photographers that we are. It was a perfect experience. One thing that certainly surprised us all was the constant flow of traffic coming down this less-traveled-by road from the north, and traffic that began just a few minutes after totality. I was just as surprised at the large percentage of people who vacated the ranch "parking lot" shortly after totality. I could not understand how people could come from supposed distant starting points to watch the eclipse in Wyoming and then not stay until it was over. Granted, the second half of the eclipse event was far less dramatic, but I just feel that if you are going to watch a possible "once-in-a-lifetime" event, then watch all of it.


As we drove east out of Torrington, Wyoming, the traffic that was on the north-south roads was boggling. My daughter, who was in Fort Collins, Colorado told me that a normal two hour drive from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Denver, Colorado was going to take at least seven hours. When I considered that anyone from New Mexico and north of that state who wanted to drive up to see the eclipse had no choice but to drive on the lone freeway that was just east of the Rocky Mountains, and all of those travelers were now going back home at the same time on that one road. We were heading east on a two-lane highway that proved to be the "road less traveled by," and that did make all the difference. We had minimal traffic, we could see the bluffs that were obscured by fog earlier that morning, and we were flush with excitement at such a wonderful adventure. My wife and I drove a total of 1820 miles for a total eclipse that was a mere 2:15 in totality ... and it was totally worth it.


I got home and enhanced my Diamond Ring Effect picture with every enhancement technique possible until I could re-create my t-shirt :)

go packers eclipse

GO PACK, GO!

Turns out that another eclipse chaser, who was more "in the know" that I, had set up his telescope in northwest Wyoming in a precise location that allowed him to capture the International Space Station crossing the disk of the Sun just about halfway into the event. It is a REALLY cool picture, and I wish I could claim credit, but alas ... I cannot.

iss crosses eclipse