Sunday, November 25, 2012

Eclipse 2012 - what went wrong?

It's now been eleven days since we stood in the shadow of the moon and I have now been back home in Denmark for a week. After recuperating and trying to remember what my day job is about I finally have found the energy for a very unpleasant task: finding out what went wrong on eclipse day.

Recall, that we got to see the second half of totality, with only a thin veil of high clouds present. Recall also that my ambitious project of high resolution automated imaging through a 4" refractor was a complete and utter failure.

I have worked on this project for several months. When I think about how close to success I was and revel in the details of how it failed I can almost feel physically sick. But that is exactly what I need to do; revel in details, go through it all again and try to learn from it so that I can do better next time.

Here's what happened. I set up OK, got the scope pointed at the partly eclipsed sun. Got the solar image focused and framed OK using liveview in Imagesplus. Got Eclipse Orchestrator started. Entered the precise geographic coordinates and local time from my GPS. Waited, thinking that all was ready.
Nervously awaiting totality with set-ups ready and too many clouds.

That was my second mistake (I'll get back to what the first mistake was later). I should have noticed that several small details were wrong. First, the displayed UTC time was one hour late. Second, the simulated view of the Sun did not match reality: the moon was leaving the solar disc instead of encroaching upon it.

When I discovered this we were only 15 minutes from totality and everything was just accelerating. I also had to function as the astronomical tour guide for our party of 28 paying guests. Frantically, I double checked the GPS coordinates and time, nothing was wrong. I wasted precious time restarting the PC and camera. With only seven minutes to go, I converted my script into an emergency version with only the coronal shots present (never practiced that). However, as totality began I could not start the script. Thinking that the system had somehow frozen up I realized all was lost and let it go. Instead I just enjoyed the rest of the show.

Yesterday, I went though it all again. Connected the camera, started Eclipse Orchestrator entered the local time on the PC as 6.36 AM, November 14, 2012 timezone GMT+9. Just as I had eleven days before. I saw the exact same problem - instead of totality being two minutes away the moon was just a few minutes from fourth contact! Fiddeling around I discovered, with a sickening, sinking feeling in my stomach the root cause: I had chosen GMT+9 as my timezone - it should have been GMT+10!!!!

Consequently, Eclipse Orchestrator thought that we were one hour further ahead in time than we actually were. How stupid of me.

Oh, well.

I must have been mixed up mentally by the pressure in the days since we arrived in Queensland. The tour program was very tight and I had been away from the equipment for three days because we had gone to the outback and the Daintree rainforest. I do remember entering GMT+9 on the laptop several days before the eclipse. That was a ticking time bomb and I could not overcome it on eclipse day due to the mental and temporal pressure of the unfolding events.

In the end of all this I arrive back to the feeling that all eclipse chasers have when totality ends, no matter what: when can I get to see this again?

Animated satellite images showing the lunar shadow racing across Australia and out into the Pacific (click to enlarge)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Eclipse 2012 - the event

We got to see the eclipse!!!

We left the hotel as planned and arrived on time. The site was open, not commercial'ish and we had a private area at the best spot, looking over the Captain Cook Highway and out over the bay. The area was warm, there was not a lot of wind and there were no bugs. The air was very moist and clouds formed and dispersed very actively. Sometimes we a got a very slight drizzle. Not the best situation, but we have known all along that this eclipse would occur under complex and active tropical conditions.

Setting up, then waiting.
I set up the equipment: Borg 4" refractor on astrotrac with Nikon D300 controlled by Eclipse Orchestrator. I also got the H-alpha scope up and running for the guests. Finally, I put an old analog Nikon camera with color film and a 55mm lens behind our crowd so that we would be framed with the eclipsed Sun. Quite a lot of stuff to tend to this time. I am pushing it to the limit - got to remember to enjoy the eclipse with my senses and be mentally - even spiritually - engaged.

Venus rising.
All was ready. Venus rose - bright and steady - where the Sun soon would follow. We all took that as a good omen.

After first contact just eight minutes after sunrise, things seemed to progress very rapidly. The time from first contact to totality spanned just 54 minutes. Measured GPS position and time; entered into the software. Found the sun, focused using ImagesPlus, then went back to Eclipse Orchestrator.

Fifteen minutes before totality things started to go wrong. Large clouds started drifting past the sun. I noticed that Eclipse Orchestrators simulated view of the eclipse did NOT match reality. I scrambled - was the GPS coordinates entered wrong (no!), was the time (no!). Reboot and try again, same problem. If the software is not in synch with reality the images will not fire off at the right moments and all would be lost. Just seven minutes to go. Instead of just dumping the project and dedicating myself to enjoy the spectacle I frantically made an emergency script, using the last few minutes with my head at the computer screen. Suddenly totality started, but a cloud was blocking the sun - none of the usual ahhs and oohhhs from us all; more like a tense mumbling.

One percent makes all the difference.
I tried to initiate the emergency script but found that Eclipse Orchestrator was not responding. The fully eclipsed sun came out from behind the cloud only covered by a thin veil of haze. VERY BEAUTIFUL! All was lost with my imaging project. I ran up to the analog camera and fired off some shots of the spectacle.

I think we got the last two thirds of totality including the diamond ring and Baily's Beads. I spent too much time fiddling around and the whole thing ended before I could find myself mentally participating. Too much ambition, too little time. Leaves me a bit frustrated.

The inner corona and numerous prominences.
Still, the luck we had in seeing the totality at all was amazing. Moments later a large cloud came by and blocked the sun for ten minutes.Although a bit frustrated I am mostly very happy. I had fun doing the preparations and I will probably find time to analyze what went wrong and try again some other time. For the eclipse chaser there always comes another time!

Be sure to click all the images to get a better sense of what happened this morning. The photographer is Inge-Lise Krylbo, one the participants on this journey. More photos will follow in the coming days and we'll also hear about how it went for other observers here in tropical Australia.

Eclipse 2012 - this is it!

It is 3.00 AM. Spent all night preparing. Sky looks promising; about 70% clear. Packing up and eating some food. Will meet with one of the guests who knows about weather and confirm that we are going to our primary site.

I am nervous about forgetting some essential piece of hardware so I better finished. We are leaving in 40 minutes. Next update will be after totality!

Eclipse 2012 - update before totality

>>>>>>>>  This update posted 1.5 hour before we leave the hotel  <<<<<<<

I put the gear together - went OK. Found that the 4" scope was out of collimation, as expected after the outback roads. Got it collimated OK. For this I used my artificial star, but had to pause halfway into the process because it started to rain. These tropical drizzles just come and go all the time! Scary.

Checked the Eclipse Orchestrator script once again. Found that the image sequences for the Baily's Beads and the Diamond ring effect were switched around on both sides of totality!! I got them switched around so that prior to totality the Baily's Beads comes first, then the diamond ring. Reverse after totality. Whew... Good I discovered that! Ran the script and saw that camera performs as it should.

I can't practice polar alignment on stars due to too many clouds, so I am opting for using the compass instead. Adjusted the astrotrac wedge to 16.5 degrees south. Adjusted the compass to 7 degrees eastern magnetic declination. This will have to do.

Our planned location - 2 km north of the centerline.
I'll transport the gear semi assembled, with the Borg scope in my hands in the bus so that it doesn't get shaken too much. The guests really want to help so they'll get to carry as well.

We'll have to drive 15-30 minutes south of town to a site just 2 km north of the center line. The bus leaves at 3.30AM - just 1.5 hour from now.

Just went outside and looked at the sky - it is clear! Orion and Sirius are near zenith.

Below is a NOAA IR image of the cloud situation 45 minutes ago. At that time it was cloudy here.
NOAA IR enhanced image 14.11.2012, 1:09AEST.
Red cross shows our location

Eclipse 2012 - arrival in Port Douglas!

We have just arrived in Port Douglas - the place where we will (hopefully!) be seeing the total solar eclipse. We are now just 11 hours from totality and I have a million things to do, mostly dealing with setting up the hardware. We have been in the outback and rain forest for three days out of contact with  the world.

I brought the telescopes along in the bus. That was a mistake. We've been bumping around on the roughest roads ever and the collimation must be way off by now; gotta check that shortly.

I'm back in a hotel room with Esben, our snoring tourleader. That doesn't matter much because I won't be sleeping tonight anyway. We have chartered a bus to pick us up here at 3.30AM to be at our designated site - south of here - at 4.00AM. I'll do a last minute weather satellite check and if there are clear indications that the chances will be better up north we will drive that way instead. I hope that won't be necessary.

Check out the latest weather outlook below. Scary!!!!

Latest outlook. Why do they show those nasty icons when only 'trace amount' of rain are expected and the cloud cover is 'only' 19-31%??????

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Eclipse 2012 - bad night, good news

I just had a pretty bad night; had to share a room with Esben, our tour leader from Viktors Farmor. He's really a nice guy but he snores - and it was very hot. Didn't get much sleep. I'll have to do the same on the night before the eclipse.

I used the night to charge as many batteries as I could - will do the rest in the coming days.

Just before leaving for the Bama way I checked the weather outlooks. They have improved relative to yesterday; see below!!!

Eclipse day weather outlook - not bad!!!

Eclipse 2012 - Queensland

Today we arrived in Queensland - the tropical north-eastern part of Australia where the total solar eclipse will take place just 3 1/2 days from now. It was cloudy 90% of our time in New South Wales, it was cloudy out of the airplane window all the way up here and it is cloudy right now. So much for the sunny, arid continent!

After arrival we learned that the itenary will take us up the 'Bama way' which is an aboriginal rainforest, outback path inland that should be very fantastic to experience. The catch is that we will not be able to bring any luggage of significance - hence I will be separated from all the astro-equipment that I was planning to start putting together in the coming days. Doing final practicing, alignments, checking. Now I won't be able to do that until just 10-12 hours before the eclipse!! Good thing that I practiced a lot at home.

On the Bama way: Willie Gordon, elder of the Nugal-Warra people

Friday, November 9, 2012

Eclipse 2012 - Siding Spring Observatory

Visiting comet-guru McNaught at Siding Spring.
Touring Siding Spring Observatory was great fun. We met Robert McNaught, discoverer of 73 comets and 410 asteroids, and heard about his work. We saw the great telescopes and took in the beautiful landscape views from the mountain.

Observing an outburst on the Sun
We have finally been getting a few minutes of sunshine in the mornings and I have started setting up the H-alpha scope for solar viewing with our tour guests. Yesterday witnessed an outburst from active region 1611 near the limb of the Sun. I hope that this region and others like it will be present during the eclipse next week - the more action the better on eclipse day.

Today we will leave New South Wales and fly north to Cairns. Mentally and physically this signals the next - eclipse - phase of our journey. Up until now I have not pulled out the photographic setup from my baggage stores, but starting tomorrow it will be time for that. I really hope there will MUCH more clear skies up north so that I can get som sky-time for the final preparartions.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Eclipse 2012 - script design

I have now finalized the design of the pre-programmed sequence of images to be taken during totality. Recall that I will be using a Nikon D300 DSLR with a four inch f/6.4 refractor on an Astrotrac equatorial mount. This setup will be under fully automated PC control using the 'Eclipse Ochestrator' software.

In China (2009) I used a similar setup but failed to get good images because the time interval between images was too short, causing the camera to freeze up. This time I am using a camera recycle time of 0.8 seconds which I have previously found should avoid this problem.

My setup is quite heavy and on the limits of the mount capacity. Consequently, the whole thing is fairly prone to vibrations. To minimize the risk of shutter induced vibrations I'll use a mirror lock-up time of one second. Still, from previously testing, I do expect that a significant fraction of the shots will be blurred due to wind induced mount vibrations, so it is important to shoot as many images as possible.

Using the script wizard in Eclipse Orchestrator I can generate a rough initial script to see how many shots can be pressed in during each brief phase of the eclipse. The program also chooses reasonable exposure times based on the actual setup.

I tweaked the auto-generated script so that the Earthshine shots were centered on the deepest part of the eclipse. I could also press in one extra corona image series plus a few extra corona shots here and there. Click the image below to see an overview of what I'm going to attempt. When running the script with the camera connected I see that the exposure settings are updated correctly and that the camera does not lock up. Hurray!

Camera control script - click image above to get full size version
I chose to use ISO=200 for which Eclipse Orchestrator suggested these exposure times:

  • partial phase (with filter): 1/1250 sec.
  • diamond ring: 1/160 sec.
  • Baily's beads: 1/8000 sec.
  • chromosphere: 1/5000 sec.
  • prominences: 1/2500 sec.
  • Earthshine: 3 sec.
  • corona: 1/640, 1/200, 1/80, 1/30, 1/10, 1/4, 1/1.3 sec., corresponding to optimal coronal imaging at Rs=0.1-4.0
I hope that these times will prove to be OK!

Yesterday we approached Coonabarabran and on the way experienced the world's largest solar system drive. At the Jupiter stop, 22 km from Siding Spring Observatory, I couldn't resist attempting some serious observing!

Getting up close to Jupiter (click to get even closer!)

Eclipse 2012 - clouds and wine

Lowe winery tasting

After leaving Sydney we drove to the Blue Mountains, stayed at a great, old timer hotel and drove on into gold and wine country around Mudgee. Although the weather has been nice and warm it has also been partially cloudy and I haven’t had a chance to set up the telescopes and practice polar alignment. Due to jet lag during the first days here I usually wake up around 4 AM. Later on I have made a habit out of this since these quiet, early morning hours are great for working on the various remaining tasks for eclipse day.

I did manage to get the bulb exposure mode on the Nikon D300 working under PC control. I’m not quite sure what did the trick but now it works anyway. This is important because the bulb cable should enable a larger number of images to be taken during the all-to-brief moments of totality. I must remember to re-check that this continues to work in the coming days.

It will remain cloudy for the next few days and during this time I better get finished with the Eclipse Orchestrator script and the eclipse presentation I'm going to be giving to the guests on this trip. It really is too bad with the clouds! Tomorrow we will be going to Coonabarabran and the famous Siding Spring Observatory. This will be great, but with all the clouds I doubt that we'll get any night time observing done. Grr. Still, you can't have everything and as long as we don't get clouded out on Nov. 14th I'm not complaining!!!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Eclipse 2012 - Sydney and bulb exposure

Today we toured Sydney - Bondi Beach, the harbor, the Rocks, etc. Great fun, great weather and great food. Still, I am looking forward to leaving the big city behind and heading off to the Blue Mountains tomorrow. For me, nature and the landscapes have more allure.

I left the rest of the party early after dinner since I wanted to work more on controlling the Nikon D300 DSLR camera. I hope to get some clear, dark skies for doing star cloud photography in the coming days. I'd like to expose for maybe 1-2 minutes and this will require using the bulb exposure mode. I do have both a USB and a bulb cable - but for the last couple of times I couldn't get the setup to work. Only non-bulb exposures up to 30 sec are possible. What's wrong?

I have tried doing a bulb exposure using both ImagesPlus and the DSUSBcheck software that comes with the Shoestring shutter control cable. Doesn't work. I can do non-bulb exposures under PC control. I can do a bulb exposure without the PC, by just holding down the exposure button on the camera. What is wrong? I'm suspecting some weird camera setting is causing this. I have requested to join the ImagesPlus forum on yahoo groups - maybe someone there can help!

Other important tasks in the coming days: practice polar alignment using the southern stars; finalize the Eclipse Orchestrator script, finish preparing the talks I'll be giving to the guests. It's a hard life being a solar eclipse chaser - but someone's got to do it!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Eclipse 2012 - Finally on our way!

Now the journey has really started. I am writing this after 33 hours of airline travel interspersed with a few sporadic hours of sporadic sleep, followed by 12 hours of touring Sydney. Everything has gone well so far. I have met many old companions from earlier eclipse expeditions and some new acquaintances. We flew with the largest passenger aircraft in the world from London via Singapore to Sydney, the Airbus A380. I tried running up and down on a staircase in an airplane - never done that before. In Singapore I got an SMS from Ingrid, our oldest daughter and my eclipse expedition companion from 2008, that she had put a surprise in my baggage. I did not get a chance to find it until we arrived in Sydney - but what I found sure made me happy, see below. All in all, we have had many good omens on these first few days so I am upbeat about having success on eclipse day, eleven days from now. I still have some technical issues to go through and practice on before that happens, but for now I will very shortly retire into the bed behind me!

Some snapshots from the past days can be seen below - click them to enlarge.

Home, sweet home - our Airbus A380.
Tired travellers in Sydney.

A surprise note from Ingrid, discovered once we arrived in Australia!
(click to enlarge)