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Perfect Eclipse With Public Outreach and Live Video


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Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

Latitude 42 25 32.30 North

Longitude 103 43 58.82 West

My story of The Great American Eclipse 2017 goes back well over a year. My form of astronomical adventures are public outreach using live video, four to ten times a month at a school, park, or special event, sometimes accompanied by my retired earth science teacher wife if hands-on demos are requested, through the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association's support for non-profit outreach.

This was Susan and my fourth solar eclipse; two totals, one annular, and a partial. Our first total was the 1998 adventure in Aruba, aboard the Dawn Princess. By the time of the 2012 Annular Eclipse at the Grand Canyon, I was heavily into public outreach and coordinating the South Rim Grand Canyon Star Party in June each year, so I gathered about 30 of my Grand Canyon gang together and we had a great experience for that one. Some of us went to various observing points for the public, and about 25 of us set up at the main Visitor Center with about 3500 visitors. When the 2017 event came into our consciousness, we started planning how to get involved with public viewing. I contacted Interpretive Ranger Kevin Poe at Bryce Canyon National Park fifteen months ago and he told me about a goal to try to get at least one outreach specialist at each National Park, Monument, and Recreation Area along the path of totality. I knew we would be doing an annual trek to and from Ohio about that time, so I looked at the path and Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska seemed a perfect spot to stop on the way home from Cleveland. I contacted Ranger Anne Wilson at Agate, and we started our planning for Susan and me to show up and help work with visitors.

As we were getting ready to head out from Cleveland for our return to Tucson, eclipse weather at Agate Fossil Beds looked to be the big risk, with many weather models in disagreement as the date approached. Virtually all were predicting from 50% to total cloud cover for the event. We pressed on anyway. On the way to Cleveland from Tucson, seven weeks in advance, we stopped by Agate for a preview of the site and to touch base with the staff. 

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is one of America's best hands-on depiction of the methodology of scientific approaches developed in the 19th century to study the huge great dying area from 15-20 million years ago. Agate seems like an analog to the process of evolution in the Serengeti. But most amazing was that the discoverer of the fossil beds, James Cook, in the late 1880s made contact with Red Cloud and the Lakota Sioux. Half of the visitor center is Native American focused, with many gifts from Red Cloud and other leaders who trusted the scientists over decades of mutual study. An incredible collection of artifacts, beautifully crafted, art work so precise and well done. Dinosaur bones I've seen, but never so many artifacts of life on the Plains. 

Members of the Black Hills Astronomical Society also attended the event at Agate, arriving in advance and camping on site. They put on a star party Sunday night, but due to the family responsibilities we had in Cleveland we just couldn't head out early enough to make it.  

We stayed down in Gering, Nebraska, at the Monument Inn, a great little place to bunk. The whole Scottsbluff area was really into the eclipse with days of special activities. The Inn is about an hour's drive south of Agate on "normal" days so we were concerned about traffic on eclipse morning but when we got on the final two lane road north, we only saw three cars in 37 miles headed north! Morning dawned with a dense fog, only about three car lengths visibility as we headed out around 6:30 AM. Hardly any traffic on the way, and fog cleared out about forty minutes into the trek. We ended up with a virtually clear, blue sky with only one wisp of a cloud. On the way up to Agate we passed about 100 cars in clusters parked off to the sides of the road, but mostly just open prairie. We got to the park entrance with a three mile road into the main visitor center area and the Rangers were awesome with controlling the influx. My guess is several thousand people pulled off in mown areas along the road. We got to the visitor center, and I saw the Black Hills folks about 200 yards into the fields south of the visitor center. I unloaded my equipment up at the visitor center, but stayed within 20 yards of the sidewalk since outreach was our mission.  

I set up two telescopes; a Lunt LS60THa-B600 for the H-Alpha work, using a Mallincam Jr. Pro live video camera into a 19" monitor, an a 90mm Orion ShortTube with a Baader filter for white light, using a Mallincam Xterminator feeding into an 18" laptop to try to grab and store live video of the corona. I was fully set up by 8:30, except I couldn't control the Xterminator from the laptop. I tried everything I could think of, then left the 90mm/white light alone and way over-exposed, and worked on the H-Alpha image, which became perfection. I started the outreach with the two live video displays, but only one with anything useful.  

The Lunt setup was perfect except the polar alignment had a bit of drift, but the image of the sun was incredible. Meanwhile, the 90mm white light was on a Celestron AVX mount and perfectly polar aligned; I didn't have to re-center it except for three hours later, just a tweak. For the H-Alpha, I used the native focal length so the 19" monitor was filled top to bottom with the solar disk. I had it tinted an orangish-red, and the monitor controls allowed a perfect view of the main mid-disk active region, a bright white slash at least 10% of diameter along the mid-line with accompanying sunspot groups at the ends, a small family of filaments on lunar approach limb, and a smaller bright active region with sunspots on the limb diagonally opposite the filament group. There were three or four strong prominences around the 8 o'clock position, and a thicker grouping extending out about 90 degrees away. What a show for the visitors. The white light view was poorly set up. The Xterminator sensitivity did not allow me to block the sunlight sufficiently to keep from overexposing. I probably should have used the cameras on the opposite scopes!  

A majority of the thousands of visitors stayed close to their vehicles, so I had about 250 of my "closest friends" drop by when they heard about the video, and about fifty took screen shots. For about three and a half hours, we talked solar physics, the views, the spirituality of it all, just a great time with people in awe of the spectacular event. Then the miracle, just before first contact. I found that the serial cable had backed out 1/4" from the camera, and upon pushing it in, full camera control but the overexposure in the setup never did allow itself to be adjusted out. 

About thirty minutes prior to first contact, there was an introductory talk given by a Lakota speaker, dressed in his ceremonial style. I try to study many cultures and customs in all astronomical environments, so I was interested in his presentation of a Lakota point of view. For some cultures, like Navajo, the duty is to spend the time of an eclipse indoors in quiet contemplation and self-examination. As relayed to us during this event, for our Lakota speaker we should contemplate the situation of our own existence and where we have been, and were in life we were going, but at totality it was time for celebrating our role in the universe and awakening our duty to cope with life and to work to be better in unifying ourselves with our universe. As first contact began, eyes were skyward and observing. The monitor views were striking, with the "bite out of the cookie" getting larger. In some cultures, we would be making noises to scare away the (pick your animal or spirit) trying to devour the sun. In our venue, the ceremonial music by the Lakota began at totality, calling forth good medicine to help us with our lives and our interaction with our spirits and our universe for the betterment of all. 

My wife had her Canon EOS T3I set up next to me with a schedule of settings to use. All was set for totality. She kept rounding up visitors and sending them over to my live videos, and we both pushed the annual Grand Canyon Star Party as another bucket list event to attend. 

As totality neared, we noticed a twin engine general aviation aircraft was screaming toward us opposite the sun, landing lights on, about 1500 feet in the air. Another aircraft was behind it. We thought a third was following them when our Lakota announcer said that it was an eagle! Sure enough, in binoculars a gigantic golden eagle at much lower altitude had joined the parade. I turned back to the sun, mind sufficiently blown, I thought, until totality hit. 

Totality was even more breathtaking than our first eclipse onboard the Dawn Princess near Aruba in 1998. As always, NOTHING like the pictures; it seems to be moving toward you, and you can reach out and touch it. You feel the incredible wonder of the spectacle in front of you. To the naked eye there is a dark inkwell of a circle with an intense pencil thin light around it. The corona is a shimmering isinglass curtain extending in all directions, stationary yet it's alive! A glorious grayish artifact almost as iridescent as the Ring Nebula, at first about one additional diameter beyond the Moon. It virtually screams "I'm The SHOW, Folks". The background is stunning; not black at all, but a steel blue. On second contact, Bailey's Beads were crisp and a string of pearls with a bit of refractive red strong dots, and a nice diamond engagement ring. Then the corona exploded, and as our dark adaption started taking over, the eyeball view went from a bright ring around the moon with fuzz and grew into a tremendous, glorious huge butterfly with wing tips stretching out past the main corona at 10, 2, 5, and 7 o'clock. Most noticeable was that the sky stayed a dark blue. Venus vas visible about 10 minutes prior to totality, Susan pointed out Jupiter popping out at totality, and it was glorious to see sunset in a 360 degree circle around us in a deep red glowing LED like display. On the white light scope I had gone the wrong direction on the level control setting and made the overexposure worse, ruining the corona shot and movie. 

Now that we were dark adapted, the third contact diamond ring was an explosion of light. Again, distinct Bailey's Beads despite the intense diamond ring, so huge and profound in dark adapted vision. As in our prior eclipse 19 years ago, the totality duration flew by. But the full totality is burned in my memory, along with the "good medicine" drums and chanting by the Lakota for the event. 

As the moon was going on its way, I was again struck, just as 19 years ago, by the anticlimax as people kind of hung onto the image of totality and just wandered around, and within 30 minutes a lot of equipment was being packed up by the astronomer contingent. My audience really thinned out, but the conversation quality increased. I had nice discussions with foreign visitors, both veteran eclipse chasers and first time new groupies. I talked a while with a very nice young lady from The Netherlands who was attending her fifth eclipse. She missed the Libya eclipse because she was ill when the time came for making reservations and missed her chance, but her 80+ year old mother was on a historical vacation trip to Egypt, not really interested in the eclipse, but got to see it! I talked to so many people from northern locales, like North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and even Canada, who had no intention of being at our site specifically, but followed maps and traffic and just lucked out and ended up with us. 

Around 4th contact I started packing up. Sure seemed like a longer lug back to the car than out to the setup spot. After a long wait in line for a last bathroom break, we headed out and again, hardly any traffic other than three or four cars at stop signs in a couple of small towns near Mitchell. 

The only disappointments were that I fumbled the wrong way on settings for the corona and missed it, and didn't have the H-Alpha being recorded, an awesome view. In Susan's case, we found out her ISO settings were one step too high, so her images were overexposed as well, but the experience was priceless. Highlights for me was the outreach with the public with whom to be able to share the scientific and cultural information and especially the live video experience. Also, the cultural attention paid to the event, the dedication and attention to detail by the National Park Service Rangers, the highly professional job done by law enforcement (city, county, and state police in the right places, the right times), and how well the Monument Inn supported the event, with commemorative room keys with a gorgeous eclipse photo on the key. For our adventure, the NPS and the State of Nebraska really came through for a smooth, seamless experience. 

In April, 2024, a total eclipse goes through my mother-in-law's yard in Cleveland, Ohio. Looks like we have a place to stay!

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