Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Eyes Up

One human, astrophotographer, and astronomer's perspective while witnessing the total solar eclipse in 2017.

Published onMar 01, 2024
Eyes Up
·

Abstract

As an early undergraduate student in 2017, I was just starting out in both my astronomy career and astrophotography hobby. In this personal narrative, I document my experience witnessing the total solar eclipse of 2017 while camping in eastern Oregon. Throughout my perspective, I explore humans' shared curiosity and awe of the universe, how my career in astronomy does and does not encourage my connectedness to Earth, and how astrophotography as a related but non-work hobby interfaces with those feelings and connections. 

Narrative

Eyes up has been a mantra of mine for as long as I can remember. My mom has a coffee mug at home that we glazed when I was little with the phrase written on the handle. In that context, the phrase is a reference to good practices while riding horses. The collection of mugs features simple line drawings of horses cantering through the instructions “gather your reins,” “eyes up,” and “heels down”: all reminders to stay focused, look towards where you’re going, and remain grounded throughout the movements and changes of pace. In particular, “eyes up” is a message of curiosity, positivity, and presence. Beyond the barn, I relate to this expression in a tangible sense and – literally – through multiple lenses.

I often find myself peering up at the sky through a lens. In my work as an astronomer, my eyes are not physically up to the eyepiece but are instead trained to a computer screen where custom software connects me to a sophisticated lens and camera system comprising a professional-grade telescope that is pointed towards some patch of sky my team has deemed scientifically interesting. In my free time, I might be found in a similar position, but with my eye lined up with my own DSLR camera, pointed to some patch of sky I deemed aesthetically interesting. In these moments, I’m using a much smaller, but still sophisticated, lens and camera system, and I am taking in a much wider view of the same sky.

My astrophotography hobby emerged from the unsurprising confluence of my eagerness to spend time outside, my grandpa’s work in photography, and my astronomy education. In both familial and classroom settings, I was taught the tools, techniques, and physics of lenses, long exposures, and detectors. By the time I had completed my first year of astronomy training at Smith College, equipped with the Canon camera my grandpa gifted me for my high school graduation, I was primed to lift my eyes and lens up to the sky for the total solar eclipse in August 2017.

My mom and I and our big orange dog, Henri, drove up to eastern Oregon from our Northern California home to see the total solar eclipse (Figure 1). We were headed to a ranch for a festival specifically designed to witness the Moon pass precisely between the Sun and Earth. The spot was ideal for a few reasons: it has an arid climate making it likely to have clear skies, is far from urban areas making it less affected by light pollution, and was in the path of totality. In other words, for a few minutes on August 21, 2017, this ranch in Oregon would sit serendipitously in the Moon’s shadow without the obscuration of clouds or artificial light.

Big orange dog looking playfully alert while lying next to the base of a big oak tree. He is holding a stick between his paws, and is partially illuminated by afternoon sun.
Figure 1

Henri, our big orange dog, at our campsite in eastern Oregon the day before the total solar eclipse in August 2017.

Being two semesters into my astronomy education, I was used to dodging overcast weather and bright lights (including the brightness of the Moon) to pick up signals from faint, faraway objects like distant planets. The majority of nights at Smith College’s western Massachusetts campus are overcast or drizzly. This was especially the case during the school year, when I was hired to operate Smith’s 16-inch telescope and take images of other planets eclipsing their host stars outside of our solar system (Figure 2). There’s a saying that observational astronomers become amateur meteorologists – and I was no exception. I could often be found awake past midnight: if it was overcast, I was probably in a crowded, sweaty basement, but on clear nights, I was most likely on the roof breathing crisp air with one or two other astronomers-in-training. The rhythm of my life was connected to the cycles and patterns of the natural world, whether the night be clear or cloudy.

Star trail image with a telescope dome in the foreground. The dome is open, with red lights glowing inside. The Moon is the brightest trail in the sky.
Figure 2

Stacked timelapse images taken from the roof at Smith College’s observatory during an observing night. In the foreground is the dome that houses the 16-inch telescope. The sky in the background shows the stars as thin streaks and the Moon as a bright swath. A plane crossed through my camera’s field of view during the timelapse, leaving a dotted path intersecting the trails of the stars on the center left.

That summer, it felt like the world (or at least a good chunk of the United States) came together for the solar eclipse. I remember us grabbing a six-pack from a nearby grocery store called “Chromosphere Blonde Ale.” The three of us – Mom, Henri, and I – were camping on the ranch, along with the couple hundred other festivalgoers. Although we didn’t know anyone else there, there was an immediate sense of community in the shared anticipation and curiosity. The night before the eclipse, glowing tents on the ground were the colorful counterparts of the stars in the sky (Figure 3). The big event wasn’t until the morning, but people, including me, had their eyes and lenses to the sky anyway.

The stellar, dusty band of our Milky Way Galaxy adorned the hills surrounding the ranch, an omnipresent event in itself. I’m lucky to have seen the Milky Way dozens of times in my life, and it excites me every time. In one of my classes, I learned that one-third of all humans, confined under a shield of light pollution, haven’t seen it. We definitely couldn’t see the Milky Way from the roof at Smith, but my classmates from big cities were still impressed by the number of stars they could see there. From my rural California home that summer, I could see the Milky Way easily, but now as our small town gets bigger and brighter, I can only see it because I know where to look. That night in Oregon, I took some of my first shots of the Milky Way – the start of a collection I continue to add to.

Campsite at night, with colorful glowing tents scattered in the foreground. The upper two thirds of the image show the starry night sky, with the Milky Way's band rising up from the center to the leftmost corner of the image.
Figure 3

Glowing tents scattered around the ranch the night before the total solar eclipse. Above them is the disk of our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

The next morning, all of us at the ranch geared up. We equipped ourselves with our eclipse glasses, set up tripods to hold our lenses of various sizes, and snapped occasional photos as the sky gradually dimmed. The community buzzed with anticipation and awe. I placed one hand over the other and showed my mom how to make pinhole cameras with her intersecting fingers. My favorite part was looking at the ground at the dapples created by the tiny spaces between the leaves of the oak trees, the foliage version of our phalangeal pinhole cameras. As the Moon started to pass in front of the Sun, the usual circular images of our star, projected through both fingers and leaves, morphed into thinner and thinner crescents.

The sky continued to dim, like bleaching a pair of jeans in reverse. Then the happy campers around us started gasping and cheering. The birds got quiet, the temperature dropped shockingly fast, and Henri was visibly confused and huddled closer to us. The Earth wasn’t doing anything different, but suddenly we could feel its motion through the solar system. My camera was ready, and I took off my eclipse glasses to lift my gaze directly toward the Sun now that the Moon provided protection for our eyes. We saw the “ring of fire” as the Moon blocked enough of the Sun’s shine to reveal its corona (Figure 4), and for a moment the Sun glimmered like a diamond ring (Figure 5). I was observing as I often do, but in that moment, I was first a being on Earth, then an astrophotographer honing their craft, and lastly an astronomer.

Image is mostly black, with a central black circle ringed by bright yellowish-white streaks.
Figure 4

Image of the Sun as the Moon blocked most of its light during the solar eclipse. The Sun’s corona is visible as the Moon sits in near-perfect alignment with the Sun and Earth, with respect to our eastern Oregon vantage point.

Image is mostly black, with a central black circle ringed by a thin, bright yellowish-white streak, and a brighter spot at the top of the ring, resembling a diamond ring.
Figure 5

Image of the Sun as the Moon blocked most of its light during the solar eclipse. The Sun has a diamond ring effect as the Moon starts to depart from that alignment.

I have learned a good amount about the physics and techniques of astronomical imaging from my coursework and training in astronomy, but astrophotography has taught me valuable lessons about doing astronomy as well. As observers, our position behind the lens sometimes acts as a barrier rather than a portal to wisdom. From this vantage point, it can be easy to forget that the Earth is moving, we are on it, and (except for some astronauts and multibillionaires) the vast majority of us always will be. Today, when I take long exposures of the night sky, my images often feature the glow of nearby cities, the dotted lines of flashing airplanes, or the solid lines of satellites. In taking these photos, I’m seeking to capture the bit of nature I’m witnessing – these artificial streaks are not the subject. But when I really ground myself in my vantage point on Earth, I remember that in a way they are also my subjects, since we are also nature, and these objects are our creation. I don’t mean to imply, however, that these products are natural in a virtuous way. They are often exploitative and represent our disconnect from nature. When we view Earth as a resource to be extracted from and not our home to care for and respect, we chip away at our relationship and connectedness to Earth. Collectively witnessing the total solar eclipse and practicing the art of astrophotography was a reminder of this vital connection.

Now that I’m further in my career as an astronomy graduate student, I have learned to operate bigger telescopes, write more sophisticated code, and develop scientific questions and ideas. I have also been taught to keep up, produce science, publish or perish, apply for more telescope time, and secure more grant money, all in the pursuit of staying in the field and building my professional reputation. It’s hard to disentangle myself from this system. But beyond the practical necessity of having a job, I am first a human being on Earth. I dance with horses, I hike mountains with two- and four-legged friends, I check the radar on overcast days, I write extensive analogies, I stay up late to watch meteor showers, and I wonder about the nature of the universe. And in all of that, I stay grounded on Earth by keeping my eyes up.

Comments
0
comment
No comments here