December 25, 2000 Partial Solar Eclipse

by John Rummel

Bitter cold and snow had been the rule for this December, and the evening of the 24th and Christmas day were no exceptions. We attended a Christmas eve party in our neighborhood and as we were coming home at about 8:30, the stars were shining brilliantly with Jupiter and Saturn high in the south. I decided to get the scope out in the driveway and polar align now so I would have decent tracking for the partial solar eclipse the following day.

Temperatures as I set up the scope were a few degrees below zero but winds were mercifully calm. I gave the C8 a full hour to cool down, and once I did, Jupiter and Saturn were dazzling. I got a good chance to put my new Nagler Type IV through the paces on the planets. Superb views!

I made marks in the snowy driveway for where the tripod legs were to be reset the next morning, and put everything back in the garage.

Christmas morning dawned bright and beautiful - but temps at 8:00 am were around -15! I knew I was in for a cold day. My primary concern was the knowledge that my camera shutter delay timer misbehaves when it's cold. I had previously decided to take two shots every 15 minutes (at different shutter speeds), so I knew I'd have to bring the camera back inside between each set of exposures to ensure smooth operation.  First Eclipse Picture
By 9:00 am I was all set and came inside to get some coffee and await first contact. Back outdoors at 9:30. Keeping my breath off the lens would be a major challenge, as it is most cold observing sessions. About 9:40, I glued my eye to the eyepiece and awaited the first sign of the moon's encroachment. I had estimated 1st contact at about 9:43 but several good internet sources were predicting first contact about 2 minutes earlier, so I wasn't taking any chances.  2nd Eclipse Picture
The moment when the moon takes the first notch out of the sun's disk is difficult to determine exactly, but by my timing, I recognized the first sliver at exactly 9:43 and 35 seconds. Not bad given my initial estimates. The information acquired from Fred Espenak and Chris Peat on the internet may be based on indications beyond the scope of my eyes and equipment. At any rate, the pure visual impact at seeing that first slice was quite significant. This was my first observation of a solar eclipse event since re-entering the world of amateur astronomy in 1995.  3rd Eclipse Picture
I felt the same surge of excitement voiced by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. On August 21 1560, 14 year-old Tycho witnessed a partial eclipse from Copenhagen Denmark. What thrilled him more than the sight itself was the fact that it had been predicted with certainty. Such a prediction seemed marvelous and even arrogant to the impressionable teenager: "something divine that men should know the motions of the stars so accurately that they were able a long time beforehand to predict their places and relative positions." Tycho never forgot this experience and went on to become one of the most important figures in the history of astronomy.  4th Eclipse Picture
Once the first slice was taken, things seemed to progress quite rapidly. I took photos at roughly 15 minute intervals beginning at first contact, and proceeding up through maximum eclipse at around 11:14. After maximum, my picture taking became more haphazard. Neighbors and friends were stopping by to take a look now.  5th Eclipse Picture
Several neighborhood folks stopped by, both planned and unplanned. Some people I had talked with at the party the night before came by. In addition to my telescope, I had a traditional boxed pinhole projector, a pair of eclipse glasses from Astronomy magazine, and a 7x35 binocular which I had masked with another pair of eclipse glasses. Everybody got to experience a full range of partial eclipse viewing methods.  6th Eclipse Picture
Inside the house, I had turned our laundry room into a large pinhole projector room. The window was masked except for the small foil pinhole, and the image projected onto the opposite wall, and later, a piece of paper held by me or somebody in my family. Too much fun!  Last Eclipse Picture

So the December 25 eclipse has come and gone. It was not a spectacular event, but it was very satisfying. There is something mysterious and wonderful about witnessing the motions of our most familiar solar system neighbors in action. Humans have understood the basic mechanics of eclipses for thousands of years, yet it is still easy to imagine the primal fears that must have been felt when ancient peoples saw a bite taken out of the sun's disk.

Some great eclipse links:

Fred Espenak's Eclipse Page

Sky and Telescope's Eclipse Page

Good Eclipse Pictures here

Another page worth visiting

(Eclipse pictures by John Rummel, C8 at f/10 with Nikkormat SLR at prime focus. Baader solar filter, exposure times 1/250th to 1/500th seconds, Fuji Superia 400 speed film. Madison, Wisconsin)

Back to John's main astronomy page