The Loop Newspaper - Tehachapi's Online Community News & Entertainment Guide

A checkmark on the bucket list

Sky Watch - Keeping an eye above the horizon!


Butch Shaffer, Chillicothe News

Though it never really cleared, the sun was able to punch through at just the right time to show off its diamond ring.

Seeing a total solar eclipse never was on my Bucket List. Yet, when I was twelve years old, I remember visiting a travel agent to discuss the possibility of attending such an event in Nova Scotia. The brochures I came away with fired my imagination for a very long time. I was therefore happy to add an eclipse to the bottom of the List when I discovered that the Great American Solar Eclipse was to pass directly over my mother's house in Chillicothe, Missouri. And so it came to pass last Monday.

Despite dire predictions of "Olympic-size" crowds, certain gridlock, and high anxiety on the part of my mother, we had absolutely no trouble getting through. It seems the real crowd from Kansas City International headed north to St. Joseph, while we headed east.

Upon checking in at our hotel, however, party preparations were clearly underway. It turned out that our hotel, and the one next door, was to be 'ground zero' for the Chillicothe eclipse party. Two thousand were expected to attend what was billed as, "The best eclipse since sliced bread!" (The bread slicing machine was invented here, you see. There's one in their museum on loan from the Smithsonian.) The festivities began with an outdoor showing of Apollo 13 the night before.

We had originally planned to enjoy the eclipse at my folks' place, along with whomever they cared to invite. However, it turned out that the community organizing committee couldn't find any knowledgeable speakers or interpretive guides; it seems everyone wanted to be somewhere else! When they learned Lauren Hollen and I were NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassadors, we were immediately drafted (and happy to serve).

Also, we learned that the duration of totality (when the sun is totally covered) varied greatly depending on where you were in town. At the north end (where my folks live), it was only 45 seconds; while at the south end (where our hotel was), it was 80 seconds -- almost twice as long. Clearly, our hotel was the place to be.

Then there was the weather. After the North Pole releases its grip on the Midwest, the humid maritime air mass of the Gulf of Mexico moves north during the summer. When the morning sun heats it, it rises; you can then often count on late afternoon and evening thundershowers. Once they rain themselves out, you tend to get clear skies until the next afternoon. Given this general pattern, our chances of decent weather at 1 p.m. were pretty good.

However, the weather dice were not rolling in our favor. It was rainy from the moment we touched down, and the forecast was lousy. What was there to do but to press on, be cheerful and hopeful, and order another round. After all, even if it's cloudy during a solar eclipse, it would still get mighty dark, right!

We got to bed hoping that hope alone would clear the skies. Of course, it did not. We awoke to pendulous clouds, and thunder and lightning that seemed to dare us to continue to be hopeful. But, we were determined to have a good time no matter what. We got our act together and charged on down to meet the crowd.

There wasn't much of one. At the most, there were 200 people. That means some 1800 blew it!

Because of the rain, there was no stage, no PA system, and no formal speeches. To be honest, I think most everyone rather liked it that way. We just talked to people in small groups and helped them understand what was going on. The people that did show up tended to be quite knowledgeable. To be sure, there were burgers, hot dogs, sodas, watermelon, and souvenirs.

A focal point was a large television in the hotel lobby airing NASA-TV. Armstrong Flight Research Center (at Edwards Air Force Base) had a Gulfstream aircraft flying along in the shadow and transmitting images to us. People really enjoyed seeing those tax dollars at work.

As the time approached for totality, Lauren kept going outside to check the weather, while I manned an ad hoc base in the hotel lobby. When I heard a cheer outside, I ran out to see weak sunshine all around! Lauren Hollen wrote in her journal:

The few people remaining continued scanning the sky with their solar glasses until four minutes before totality, when there were scattered shouts, people pointing and saying, "There it is!" Yes, the break came in the clouds just in the nick of time. As the sun went behind the moon everyone was shouting. It was the most amazing thing I have seen. The corona and a circular black spot where the sun should have been! People were dancing, pointing and laughing. I was crying for joy. I did not know how much I wanted to see this until that point in time. I had set up my iPhone on time lapse for 30 minutes before the eclipse hoping to catch the darkness. And I did. The darkness came on very rapidly as you will be able to see in my video. I had no other chance to take photographs. Just experiencing those 80 seconds was magical! Didn't even think to look [for] the bright star Regulus next to the sun.

In fact, there was still a significant cloud layer that obscured Regulus, although we had no trouble seeing the corona.

A precocious ten-year-old named Martín Moore said of his experience, "It doesn't often happen, but I can't find the words.... All I can say is, 'Spectacular, spectacular, spectacular!' "

The next North American solar eclipse will occur in 2024, beginning in central Mexico, entering Texas (after clearing Customs, of course) and sweeping northeast to New England and on into Canada. I've just been informed that the path includes Burlington, Vermont -- the home of my daughter and grandsons! I've just added another item to the Bucket List!

Star Party

Don't forget the third annual Star Party at the Tehachapi Airport on Saturday night, Sept. 21. Local astronomers can bring their telescopes to Aviator Park to share with the experienced and the novice alike. The Tehachapi Society of Pilots will ensure that several aircraft are on hand, as well. Activities begin at 6 p.m. and continue until 10.


While Jupiter can still be found low in the evening twilight, Saturn now stands watch as the Evening Planet. Low in the south at sunset, the rings are still tilted very near their maximum "showoff-angle" of 27 degrees. Saturn reaches quadrature (the earth, sun, and Saturn at right angles) on Sept. 14, when its shadow extends furthest into the rings. With the weather at its best, the viewing doesn't get any better!

We must also take a moment to bid farewell to the Cassini space probe that has returned stunning images and data from the Saturnian system for the past twelve years. This includes the incredible backlit shot of Saturn with the earth as a pale blue pixel in the corner. It also carried the European Space Agency's Huygens lander to Saturn's moon Titan. Cassini has proved to be one of the most productive probes ever launched into space. However, after nearly twenty years, the probe is nearly out of gas. To prevent even the remotest possibility of contamination of life in the Saturnian system, Cassini will dutifully plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on Sept. 15. Hail and Farewell, Cassini! Well done!

Mars is now emerging from its swing behind the sun, rising into the morning twilight.

Brilliant Venus continues to light up the pre-dawn sky, although noticeably lower and a bit dimmer than last month.

Mercury also joins the party, although binoculars are helpful in finding it.

These planets will makes a number of close approaches to each other and 1st-magnitude-star Regulus, as well as the moon, this month. Keep those binoculars near your morning coffee cup!

Butch Shaffer, Chillicothe News

Butch Shaffer from the Chillicothe News captured that artful composite of the eclipse.

Occultation: On Sept. 12, the moon will pass through the Hyades Star Cluster. Usually identified as the face of Taurus, the bull, it's the nearest star cluster to earth. At only 150 light-years distance, its stars are so spread out that it's hard to see it as a "star cluster." Yet, it is in fact a nursery of very young stars just turned loose on the galaxy.

Not only will the moon pass through this star cluster, it will occult (eclipse) its brightest member, Aldeberan. It will disappear into the bright side of the gibbous moon at about 4:34 a.m. (for which you'll need a telescope) and reappear from the dark side at about 5:49. (Binoculars are advised, but keen naked eyes should do nicely.)

Sunrise/Sunset: 6:26 a.m./7:21 p.m. (September 1)

Full moon: Sept. 6

New moon: Sept. 19

Equinox: Autumn begins on Sept. 22 at 1:02 p.m.


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