Hi, my name is Kevin Milani, professor of chemistry and astronomy at Hibbing Community College in Hibbing, Minnesota. I’d like to describe to you my trip to view the recent total solar eclipse in the U.S.
I had been waiting for this eclipse for a very long time. In a previous “Voices from the Dome” audio clip, I described my trip to view the last total eclipse visible from the continental United States in 1979, and my subsequent dismay at learning that the next total eclipse from the U.S. would not be until 2017!
I began planning for my eclipse trip in the fall of 2016. I decided that Grand Island, Nebraska would be our destination, as it was almost on the centerline of totality, was a reasonable driving distance from our home in northern Minnesota and also because Nebraska is sparsely populated and I did not want to have to deal with huge crowds. I made hotel reservations in October 2016 and had trouble finding a room in Grand Island!
In order to photograph the eclipse, I arranged for the rental of a Nikon 200-500 mm lens in January 2017. I had a colleague of mine at the college make a platform out of aluminum to take the place of the optical tube of an 8 inch Celestron, so I could mount my camera and the telephoto lens and track the sun. I also decided to bring along my 6 inch Celestron Sky Prodigy telescope for viewing.
As the eclipse neared, my wife and I began our daily checks of Weather.com to see the forecast for Grand Island. The closer we got to August 21st, the iffier the forecasts became, but I decided that it was too late to change plans, so on the 19th, we drove from our home in Hibbing, Minnesota to Minneapolis to spend the night with our son and his partner, who where accompanying us on the adventure! We left Minneapolis on Sunday the 20th at about 8:30 in the morning and were in Grand Island by 4:30 that afternoon. We avoided the interstate highways and encountered zero traffic!
After having a nice dinner at a local steak house and taking a refreshing walk, we settled in for the evening. The local television meteorologist gave a forecast for the next day that was cautiously optimistic!
Eclipse day found me up early with excitement and anticipation. After getting dressed, I headed outside the hotel to check the sky and was relieved to see the sun rising in mostly clear skies. After breakfast, I jumped in the car and did a quick reconnaissance trip to scout out viewing locations. The night before, I had learned that the mall directly across the street from out hotel was hosting observers. I found they had cordoned off a section of their parking lot for eclipse viewing, so I headed back to the hotel to gather up the rest of the crew and off to the mall we went to claim our spot.
When we arrived, we were the first ones there! In fact, by the time totality occurred a few hours later, there were only about 50 people in the viewing area. I wondered where all the crowds who were predicted to be in Grand Island were, and I found out a few days later when I read an article online from the Grand Island newspaper summarizing the eclipse. Just 4 miles south of us, 6 to 8 thousand people had gathered at a local museum. We chose wisely!
But back to the eclipse! It did not disappoint! The skies stayed mostly clear, with just some high, wispy clouds moving through now and then. A family from Wisconsin ended up sitting next to us, and were thrilled to be able to look through my telescope. All of my equipment worked flawlessly, and I shot a lot of great pictures of both the partial phases and totality. As totality approached, we began looking at each other, asking, “Does it look like it’s getting darker?” There was a very slow but perceptible drop in light during the last 20 minutes or so before totality.
Then finally, it was upon us! That moment when the moon completely covers the sun and the corona appears! I heard gasps around me, as I was feverishly removing the solar filter from my camera lens and photographing the diamond ring effect! Someone shouted, “Look at the stars!”, and someone else, “Look, there’s Venus! I had forgotten how dark it gets during totality…not night-time dark, but a cloudy, dusky look. Even though totality only lasted 2 ½ minutes, it seemed longer to me, which was good…I didn’t want the time to rush by.
At the end of totality, we broke down all of the gear, and headed for home, hoping to beat eclipse traffic. Unfortunately, most everyone else had the same idea, so we ended up stuck in traffic for a while, until my son used Google maps to find us an alternate route.
By the time my wife and I made it home to Hibbing the next day, my trip computer in the car, which I had zeroed before we left, read almost 24 hours total drive time! That magical 2 ½ minutes made it all worthwhile!
Now, time to plan for 2024!