Oregon Airstream Blackout Rally

Several years ago when The Great American Eclipse hit my radar, I mentioned it to some of my fellow Oregon Airstream owners at a Wally Byam Caravan Club annual meeting.

“Hey, you guys, we should have a big rally during the total eclipse of the sun that’s coming up!” I said.

“Awesome idea. When is it?”

“2017!”

<crickets>

Down, girl, was the initial (and reasonable) reaction but when I brought it up again later it really was time to plan, and almost past time; many campsites and blocks of hotels in Central Oregon were already booked.

A team of co-hosts and rally volunteers stepped up to help organize the event, and we secured two campgrounds in a prime viewing location in Madras, Oregon.

I know what you’re thinking—sorry, the Oregon Airstream Blackout Rally has been sold out for nearly two years.

I never thought August 2017 would arrive, but here we are, and the Blackout Rally will be nothing short of epic: a weekend for 300 Airstreamers and their friends and families, packed with live entertainment, catered food, science presentations, star parties, a marina bash—and totality on the final day.

We just have to get there (and hope the dire traffic predictions are Fake News), and cross our fingers and toes for clear skies.

NASA and the Science Channel are placing their bets on Madras, as well: the location has a 95 to 98% chance of unobstructed viewing on August 21, and Accuweather is predicting 83° with “abundant sunshine”.

Review a collection of top eclipse articles and web posts on Tumblr at Second Contact.

Above: Madras, Oregon: “Top ranked viewing spot in the United States.”

Below: Early planners review eclipse data; co-host plots the Airstream trailer sites; host huddle in the marina store; lakeside campsites; marina dock; Airstreamers on site last summer; Oregon eclipse path; lovely lake locale; grill guy tests eclipse glasses; sorry, sold out!

Eclipse FAQ

When it comes to learning about the upcoming Great American Eclipse, there are no stupid questions. Well, maybe these:

Isn’t it too dark at night to see the eclipse?

If the solar eclipse is so dangerous to look at, why are they having it?

And this, as seen on a t-shirt: “I wanted to watch the eclipse but the stupid moon got in the way.”

A real live astronomer will be a guest at the Oregon Airstream Blackout Rally, and will answer questions about the celestial event of the summer.

What would you like to know but are embarrassed to ask? I’ll find out and report back. Ain’t no shame if you’re wondering if you’ll see the moon like it looks on the stamp, why the path travels from west to east, how you’ll be able to see totality with your eclipse glasses on, and why sunglasses won’t keep you from going blind.

Here’s an example of an interesting question I found online, from an astrophotographer who’ll attempt to photograph totality:

Does the size of the sun vary from one place to another? If someone in Australia took an unzoomed, unmagnified picture of the sun, would the area of the sun be equal to a photo taken, say, in Norway?

I have no idea why this has any bearing on astrophotography, but okay. Hmm.

Related: and I’m not too proud to say this out loud. How does the lunar eclipse path differ from the normal process of the phases of the moon? NO LAUGHING. Someone demonstrated this to me once using a lime, a lemon, and a tennis ball. It made sense then, but it didn’t stick.

My favorite question—to which I’ve heard only unsatisfactory answers—is this: does a total eclipse take place on any other planet? Yes, two moons of Saturn in our own solar system might produce an extremely inferior version of what we experience on Earth—but to our knowledge there are no others. (“In the vastness of the universe certainly there must be” doesn’t count.) Now for the follow up question (chill, anti-intelligent designers): what are the odds? Earthlings rely on one sun and one moon—one is 400 times larger than the other, and the other is 400 times farther away—making their discs in the sky the same size, allowing for a total eclipse. Wait, there’s more: what are the continued odds that Earth is the only planet we know of on which sentient, self-aware beings reside, who are able to appreciate the spectacle? Mind blown. 

Eclipse safety

The multiple warnings about not looking directly at the sun seem peculiar.

I mean, really? “Don’t look at the sun” is akin to “don’t hold your hand over a flame” or any other dangerous and painful act that would be ludicrous to do and impossible to sustain. Common sense dictates against such a practice (but judging from recent events in our culture, common sense is at a premium).

I couldn’t help but wonder (Carrie Bradshaw style)…is this really a problem? Turns out it is. According to LiveScience.com, total blindness is rare, but you might be in danger of contracting “solar retinopathy”—aka photic retinopathy, foveomacular retinitis, solar retinitis, and eclipse retinopathy—resulting in temporary to permanent blurriness or a blind spot at the center of your vision.

“Eclipse blindness” is caused when ultraviolet light overwhelms your retina, located at the back of your eye where the photosensing cells that allow you to see are located. During the deep partial phases of the eclipse when sunlight dims it can be tempting to sneak a peek, and the damage at that point is delivered without pain and when protective reflexes (like blinking and pupil contraction) are slacking off.

Solar retinopathy can occur at any point during the partial phase—including the final seconds before totality—and the most important reason to shield your eyes occurs in the very last two or three seconds before blackout: looking directly at the sun during this time can cause temporary vision distortion that can bork your enjoyment of the scant, precious minutes of totality.

Many people don’t understand that you must look at the sun with the naked eye after Second Contact, and the trick for a first time eclipse viewer is to know when to whip those eclipse shades off in time to see the entry phenomenon like Bailey’s beads and the diamond ring. Stay calm, and keep your glasses on until you’re sure it’s safe. (The sound effects coming from those around you will alert you that totality has occurred.) Rest assured that you’ll get a good long look at the ring and the beads in reverse order at Third Contact. Don’t risk blurry eyesight during the big event by removing your shades too soon.

It’s optimal if there’s a coach in the area to let you know what to do. This video is an example of the phenomena countdown by Jay Anderson, meteorologist aboard the expedition ship Orion in the Great Barrier Reef with (TravelQuest, Nov. 13, 2012). Some find spoken words distracting, but I think it adds to the thrill.

I love looking at the eclipse safety posters and flyers that local governments distribute—like the ones at the end of this post.

Your options

The only safe way to look directly at the partially eclipsed sun is through special purpose filters such as “eclipse glasses” or my uber-dorky #14 welder’s goggles.

The popular paper eclipse glasses you’ve seen are made with optical density 5 “black polymer” material that filters out harmful ultra-violet, infrared, and intense visible light. Look for brands made in the USA (beware of overseas knock-offs) and that state they are CE certified and meet ISO standards. I recommend Rainbow Symphony, manufacturer of our custom Blackout Rally shades. I’m told American Paper Optics and Thousand Oaks Optical are two other reliable manufacturers.

What’s true for your eyeballs is true for the devices you look through. Do not look at the uneclipsed or partially eclipsed sun through an unprotected camera, telescope, or binoculars—and don’t use these things while wearing your eclipse shades, either. The intensified solar rays will damage the filter and enter your eye. (Gad, this is getting scarier and scarier, isn’t it? You’’ll be happy to know that your own prescription eyeglasses are safe to use with eclipse shades or a solar-filtered telescope.) Both your eyes and your optical device need their own filter. Pointing an unprotected telescope directly at the sun can also result in the unfortunate melting of the plastic parts that hold the internal instruments together.

Oh, and don’t make your own filter like some hillbilly. Black plastic trash bags, balloons, camera film (WTF is that), or three pairs of sunglasses worn together won’t bar ultraviolet light.

Eclipse shades make a great souvenir of the experience; I have a small collection and the ones from Egypt are my favorite.

You’ll be able to put your hands on a pair of eclipse shades pretty easily before August 21, but order online soon. Alternatives to the standard style include hand-held viewers, magnification viewers (like the Celestron EclipSmart™ power viewer) and even wacky ones that let you look like an astronaut or an alien.

The weakest technique of all is the pinhole projection, but it’s fun to do to pass the time during the boring partial phases before and after totality. Here’s how:

  • Use two sheets of cardboard (stiff white paper, even two paper plates)
  • Make a tiny, round, smooth hole in the middle of one sheet using a thumbtack, a sharp pin, or a needle
  • Stand with your back to the sun, and hold up the paper with the hole.
  • The second sheet of paper serves as a screen for the projected image. Do you see a little crescent shadow? That’s the inverted image of the sun coming through the pinhole.
  • Experiment: make the image of the sun larger by moving the pinhole paper closer to the sun.
  • Anything with “holes” can be a pinhole projector: a straw hat, your loosely crossed hands, etc. Find a nearby tree and look at the ground below: the leaves will create hundreds of crescent projections.

Check out this excellent 4+ minute video courtesy of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Solar Eclipse Task Force and the American Institute of Physics. It will tell you everything you need to know about eclipse safety.

Above: #14 welder’s glasses. Below: Blackout Rally shades; Egypt souvenir (what does that hieroglyphic say, “scram, tourist”?); handheld viewer, solarscope (I have no idea what this does); PowerViewer; alien shades; pinhole hands.

 

Eclipse chat

I had fun sharing my eclipse experiences with a couple of good interviewers.

I was on the “Countdown to the 2017 Eclipse” show on Boss Radio 100.7 broadcast from the Oregon Coast—where residents will be the first people to stand in the shadow of the Great American Eclipse on August 21. Here’s a recording of that interview. (You can make a drinking game out of the number of times I say “spectacle”.)

Host of the weekly talk show, Kay Wyatt, is an astronomer who has her very own observatory north of Lincoln City in the coastal mountains. I was honored to be part of the 17-episode program that included interviews with several notable astronomy stars (pun intended)—among them, Fred Espenak (“Mr. Eclipse”) who was recently honored as the astrophotographer whose image was used to make the USPS Total Eclipse stamp.

I also spoke with bubbly Janine Pettit, host of the Girl Camper podcast —as Airstream trailering and eclipse chasing will soon overlap at the Oregon Blackout Rally in August—and with the Technology Reporter for the Bend Bulletin. “Eclipse Chaser Plans Life Around Solar Events” is actually a pretty accurate headline.

Update: I recently enjoyed a conversation with Brian Resnick, a reporter for Vox who interviewed several chasers for this fun and informative article.

 

 

The total eclipse postage stamp!

In June the US Postal Service will release a commemorative stamp to celebrate TSE2017, and it will be a big, big first: a stamp that changes when you touch it.

The heat of your finger will react with the stamp’s thermochromic ink to reveal an image of the full moon over a solar corona. It will revert back to a totally-eclipsed sun when it cools.

The “Total Solar Eclipse Forever” stamp will be made available on June 20, 2017 after its First-Day-of-Issue ceremony at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. (Am I the only Oregonian disappointed that it’s not taking place in Madras?) Apparently there’s some kind of druid sculpture there that manifests its magical properties on that day, the summer solstice.

The image on the new stamp was selected from among Fred “Mr. Eclipse” Espenak’s fine collection of totality photographs, that was shot during the eclipse over Egypt/Libya in 2006.

On the back (each pane of 20) will be the path of totality on August 21, featuring the largest cities and towns in the shadow.

Learn more (and watch for preorder information) at the USPS website.

(Fellow philatelic umbraphiles, spread the word! Uncle Sam says use hashtag #EclipseStamps.)

 

 

Great Barrier Reef

Oh, the eclipse? *yawn* Just another breathtaking miracle of nature.

The sky was blue and the Orion steady on eclipse day, following two grueling days on choppy seas to return to the calm waters over the Great Barrier Reef near Port Douglas.

Jay Anderson—meteorologist, astrophotographer, and co-author of the NASA eclipse bulletins with Fred Espenak—commanded a microphone and walked us through the timeline of events. Meet Jay in this video and hear his play by play (“filters off!” “shadow bands behind you!”). Jay also consulted with the captain and special reef pilot who was brought on board to guide the Orion over the Reef and ensure the best viewing area.

Thanks to his coaching I got my goggles on and off in time to witness all the phenomena. Baily’s beads were meh but we saw the best. diamond. ring. EVER. The prominence flames were higher than I’ve ever seen them too.

At third contact many beers (Corona, natch) were consumed, followed by brunch on deck and a how-was-it-for-you debriefing session in the Leda Lounge for the relieved and excited chasers. Most of them were either first time virgins—virgins no longer!—or had just racked up their 10th or 15th TSE. Me?

Six for six, and counting.

The moments on deck are captured in this 5-minute video. If you’re hoping to see the eclipsed sun itself, lower your expectations: this captures the minutes leading up to totality on deck, and before and after reactions. (Here’s a 3-minute video of totality—again, no sun, but you’ll see the sky go dark and brighten at third contact.

Above: Diamond ring photo via Snapfish, taken from the Paul Gauguin, July 10, 2010

Below:

Scenes on board the Orion, November 13, 2012.

Variety of customized gadgetry, including scope “squint” aids and fancy pinhole projection art.

TravelQuest founder and president Aram Kaprielian. (Is there a bigger smile than the one on the tour director after a cloudless TSE?)

 

Eclipse 2006

On March 29 an estimated 8,000 tourists, astronomers, NASA scientists and Egyptian officials gathered in Sallum, a town on the Libyan border usually visited only by workers and truckers entering and exiting Egypt.

The hotel in Mersa Matruh was 2 1/2 hours from the eclipse site and we rose unspeakably early to the pre-dawn rumble of motorcoaches and diesel fumes outside the hotel. “This reminds me of the Marine Corps,” groaned Ralph as we staggered from bed to bus seats in the dark.

At half past noon the moon passed before the sun in a perfect and cloudless sky. I’m now five for five.

I noticed that the shape of the corona—which is different every TSE and has something to do with sunspots and the solar magnetic field—exactly and mysteriously mirrored the design of the winged sun carvings on the back of my chair in the Nile Hilton dining room. I kept this observation to myself.

Above: Shades

Below:

Path of totality, 2006

Back on the bus

Press tent

Observing at Sallum. (Ralph. Get UP.)