Being There: The 2012 Annular Solar Eclipse

AmericaSpace was fortunate in that it had not one - but three correspondents at this year's annular eclipse. Photo Credit: Chris Hetlage / Imaging the Cosmos

An annular solar eclipse occurred last week, and two AmericaSpace team members as well as one of our partners were in the western U.S. to cover it. They’ve taken the time to jot down their thoughts, their individual perceptions on this event. What they saw, what they felt, will astound you.

Chris Hetlage

The annular eclipse of 2012 was quite an event for many residents of Northern California, where the views of the eclipse were projected to be amongst the best in the country.  Rich Simons and I arrived in Sacramento, with plans made ahead of time to shoot the eclipse from the Chico Community Observatory in Chico California.

I chose Chico as it was near the Path of Annularity (a projected path of the eclipse that would show the moon crossing near the center of the sun), as well as the very dry weather that is typical for this region.

We arrived at the Chico Observatory Sunday morning and there were several dozen observers already present.  After setting up our cameras, telescopes and computers we settled in and waited in the blistering hot sun for the event to start.


Video Courtesy of Chris Hetlage / Imaging the Cosmos

As the time passed folks continuously arrived…more and more as the day went on…in the end we estimated over 1000 people attended, it was an EclipseStock!  Many well-known astronomers also attended this event including the world famous Dr. Alex Filippenko and his family.

It was a wonderful time, with families and friends, and of course great views of the sun.  There were pinhole cameras, solar glasses, and many solar scopes for folks to view this rare event, with cheers occurring at every milestone, from first contact, to annularity, to final contact.

Amy, while not a photographer by trade, managed to grab this image using her camera's phone. Photo Credit: Amy Teitel

Amy Teitel

Amy Shira Teitel became an expert in solar astronomy and all it took was some cool paper glasses. Photo Credit: Mark Ulett

My boyfriend, Mark Ulett, and I went to the top of a mountain on the North side of Arizona State University (ASU) campus – in the 108º afternoon heat no less – to watch the eclipse. There was an interesting group of people there, from school teachers to families to students that looked like they’d gone for a walk and stumbled upon a group of people looking at the Sun. They all had some way of watching the eclipse like pinhole cameras in cardboard boxes and watching the shadow between two pieces of paper.

We were supposed to meet students from his class there, so we brought enough eclipse glasses for us and fifteen students. As soon as we pulled out two pairs and put them on, people started coming over and asking us how they worked, then asking to buy a pair. Only one student came, so we spread the glasses around.

Somehow, having eclipse glasses made us standout as eclipse authorities, and I ended up answering questions like how much of the sun we could expect to see eclipsed and how Ancient and Early Modern scientists know eclipses were coming or even happening. For the hour and a half we all sat watching, it was a nice little science community. And as an added bonus, the eclipse made the evening significantly cooler.

Mike Killian worked a number of different cameras with different types of filters. One of the images he worked to get is the one seen here, a time-elapsed shot of the eclipse. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace / ARES Institute - Compiled by Alan Walters /

Mike Killian

After a late night flight on a Pave Hawk helicopter with the 920th Rescue Wing covering the SpaceX launch (scrubbed), I boarded another flight, this one on a commercial jet from Orlando to Dallas, and then another from Dallas to Las Vegas to cover the annular solar eclipse.  I landed in Vegas at midnight on Sunday and headed two-and-a-half hours northwest into Utah.  My plan was to shoot the eclipse from a small town called Kanarraville, population less than 300.

The town doesn’t even have a gas station; it’s your typical small town with friendly people where everyone knows each other.  NASA named Kanarraville as being dead center in the path of the eclipse, so a lot of people from around the world were expected to show up to witness the eclipse.  Looking for a good location to shoot from, I noticed trails going into the mountains next to town, and I decided to take a hike in hopes of finding some high ground with a wide open scenic view facing west towards the eclipse.

After a few hours, I decided on my location and set up my gear.  About 30 minutes before the start of the eclipse, some locals joined me; apparently my location was a well kept secret.  Some brought portable BBQ grills, coolers, chairs, and even their dogs to enjoy the sights.  Everyone was amazed at the eclipse as it progressed, including myself.

Perhaps one of the most amazing images of the day - was taken by AmericaSpace's Mike Killian. With just seconds to prepare for it, he caught this image of a 747 passing in front of the eclipse. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace / ARES Institute

I noticed a plane streaking across the sky heading dead on to the sun.  I knew what was about to happen, the kind of shot that people consider “one in a million”.  I dropped everything, grabbed the big gun (400mm), got my exposure right, pointed to the sun and started shooting as soon as I saw the plane disappear into the light.  I shot six frames, and caught the 747 crossing the crescent eclipsed sun in 1 shot.  Everyone on the mountain went wild when they saw I captured it, everyone’s attention was taken off the eclipse, almost to the point of missing the annularity phase (when the Moon is covering most of the Sun).

When the eclipse reached its maximum, the skies darkened, everything seemed to be in shadow, but a gray shadow, something like a mix of light and shadow.  Dogs barked and hawks cried out from the mountains.  Although the sun was still incredibly bright, the difference in amount of light was very noticeable, I’ve never seen anything like this, making it very difficult to describe.  It was like a sunset and a sunrise – all within a span of minutes.

This year's eclipse was visible throughout a large portion of the Western United States. Photo Credit: Chris Hetlage / Imaging the Cosmos

As the sun came out of eclipse, the sky brightened again, and eventually the sun set behind the mountains still partially eclipsed by the moon.  Having no time to comprehend what I had just witnessed, I packed my gear, headed down the mountain and began my drive back to Las Vegas.  The traffic on I-15 was horrible, stop and go most of the way due to the amount of people who came to see the eclipse.  I arrived back in Vegas one hour before my flight, and luckily I made it in time.  At this point I had been awake for three straight days with only about three hours sleep, once I boarded my flight I passed out, I don’t even remember taking off, just landing in Chicago, boarding another flight, and passing out again until we finally set down in Orlando where I had another Pave Hawk flight waiting for me to cover the second launch attempt for SpaceX.

Now, you might ask, “Why go through all that?” Life is all about moments and being a photographer, it’s my calling to try to capture those moments, to encapsulate them for all time. Years from now, I will look at the images I took from the eclipse, from the launch of the Falcon 9 and smile. Sure it was ‘work’, but I don’t consider what I do a job because I love what I do. It was the first solar eclipse in nearly two decades for the U.S. and I was the first photojournalist in 50 years to ever cover a launch from a Pave Hawk with the 920th.  So I’ll have some stories to tell, people will be able to understand what these events were like, to feel the awe and majesty – and all it cost me was a few hours of sleep…

After photographing the 2012 annular eclipse Killian traveled across the country to cover the launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9. Killian was the first member of the media to fly with the 920th Rescue Wing in one of the Wing's Pave Hawk helicopters during a launch. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace / ARES Institute

One Comment

  1. AmericaSpace Team – GREAT photographs! Thank you for sharing your artistic talent and technical expertise. Very enjoyable-makes me wish that I could have been there. But on a more serious note: Amy, dear Lady, in the future when you are in arid locales with 108 degree heat and scorching, blistering sun, SUNSCREEN! SPF 5000! The photo shows you looking “a little pink”. 🙂 We need good writers like you, so take care!

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