IN A WALMART PARKING LOT, A GREAT AMERICAN ECLIPSE

(By Gary Fouts, SMC Professor of Astronomy)

On July 11, 1991, I saw a total eclipse of the Sun that affected me so deeply that I vowed to see the Great American Eclipse of August 21, 2017. This time I determined that I would not photograph the eclipse, I would just watch it and soak it all in. I felt that I had missed out on the emotional experience by all the videography and photography I had done during the 1991 experience. But thank goodness—this time I had family to accompany me: thus the photos and video in this article.

In 1991, I learned that weather is essential. Friends of mine in Hawaii were “clouded out” while my family and I had beautiful skies in La Paz, Mexico. Also, it was important to stay mobile so that we could try to counter bad weather patterns. As the day of the eclipse approached, my family and I did a lot of research on weather patterns along the Path of Totality—the path from coast to coast across the country in which a total solar eclipse would be visible. We were astounded that motel accommodations in the Path of Totality were booked almost two years before the event—but we did find a Motel 6 that had a cancellation a few days before the event, going for $1000 per night. Ha, not for us!

So, we had to look for motels outside the Path of Totality. About three months prior, we made motel reservations in three states, which allowed 48 hours cancellations. These motels were located outside the path of totality because that’s what worked for our budget. One week before the event, it was decided that an area between Albany and Salem, Oregon would offer the best chance of weather success for us. We settled on a motel just south of Eugene, Oregon. But now, we had to worry about traffic, and if we would have time to drive from our motel into the Path of Totality to see the eclipse. Would traffic accidents cause us to miss the eclipse? Wow … how lucky were we going to be?

The Great Eclipse Expedition

My daughter, Dr. Kelly Aceves—who is a Professor of Mathematics at College of the Canyons—decided to fly into Eugene and join us. Our party kept growing: SMC Adjunct Professor of Astronomy Dr. Ahmed Salama and his son, Omar; and Alan Bishop, SMC Astronomy Club President of 28 years ago—who now lives in Utah—also decided to join our “eclipse expedition”.

On the night of August 20, the Oregon media were predicting apocalyptic traffic jams! Therefore, we decided to wake up at 3:00 a.m. and get on the road at 4 a.m.; we would need to drive 45 miles to get to the site we had chosen. The partial phases of the eclipse would start at 9:05 a.m. We felt confident that we would have time to take care of possible traffic jams and any other hazards. But: surprise, surprise! There was no traffic and we got to our observing site, a Walmart Supercenter parking lot in Albany, Oregon in just 50 minutes.

Through our Eyes

Alan Bishop set up an Edmund’s Scientific Astroscan telescope with a projection screen for observing the sun in visual light, thus permitting us to see sunspots and the partial phases of the eclipse. I set up an H-alpha telescope to observe the Sun in the red light of hydrogen that permits observations of prominences (“flame-like” appearances on the limb of the Sun), and the partial phases.

My family also had three “solar binoculars” sold by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific that permitted safe viewing of the Sun during partial phases. We were READY … now we just had to wait and hope no clouds moved into the area! At around 8 a.m. we started seeing some clouds. This caused us to get worried, but soon the clouds disappeared. Hurray! At about 9:05 a.m. the Moon started blocking out the photosphere of the Sun (this is the name of the visible surface of the Sun). This was the beginning of the partial phases of the eclipse. Any time the photosphere of the Sun is visible a person must be careful not to look at the Sun with the naked eye. The equipment that we were using was safe. We continued to watch the partial phases, the Sun disappearing gradually, chunk by chunk. It was exciting.

We all kept getting more and more thrilled as the Sun kept getting smaller, looking like the game figure “Pacman.” A few minutes before, the sky started getting dark and the temperature began dropping a few degrees. At approximately 10:15 a.m., the “Diamond Ring” became visible and was followed immediately by totality. I started getting goosebumps, and my daughter Tracy started cheering and jumping up and down. At this time, the outer atmosphere of the Sun, called the Corona, became visible. The crowd around us started shouting with excitement. What an awesome, spectacular experience! The asymmetric Corona was obvious! The Moon appeared as if it was a BLACK HOLE in the sky. It was the most beautiful, and darkest black you will ever see. Also, because the sky turned dark, the star Regulus, of the constellation Leo the Lion, could be observed along with the planet Venus. The horizon in all directions looked like a sunset. The totality phase lasted approximately 1 minute 52 seconds. It was so exciting that it felt like only a few seconds. Totality ended with the second “Diamond Ring” appearing. After this, the partial phases started happening as before but in reverse. We continued to watch for the next hour and a half.

We all agreed on one thing: we want to see the next Total Eclipse. We are now planning on seeing the Total Eclipse of April 8, 2024, which will have the “Path of Totality” stretching from Texas to Maine. I recommend you also start making plans. You will love it. It will change your life.

***

Photos and video of the eclipse from the expedition described in this article are available on this webpage.

SMC Astronomy Professor Gary Fouts obtained his Master of Science degree in Astrophysics from San Diego State University in 1977. He became the Director of the Goldendale Observatory in Washington, and played a critical role in getting Governor Dixy Lee Ray to purchase the Observatory and make it the first State Park Observatory in the U.S. Gary then became a research assistant for Dr. Allan Sandage at Mt. Wilson Observatories; he also worked on a four-year program called the Halo Mapping Project of the Milky Way Galaxy, and they produced four published research papers. Later, Gary went on to be the first console operator of the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1988 Gary became a Professor of Astronomy at SMC—he is currently entering Year 30 of his SMC teaching career! He has won various teaching awards and mini-grants from the SMC Foundation, including two Drescher Chair of Excellence awards; the grant monies were used by Gary to get students involved in research.

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