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)

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