Guest blog: Bucket List Astronomy Tour Class, May 20-21, 2012

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Tuesday, May 22, 2012

More than 100 people gathered at the top of the Desert View Watchtower in the Grand Canyon to watch the May 20, 2012, annular eclipse. The park ranger handed out eclipse viewing glasses to the crowd. // photo by Mallory Smith
Currently, 10 Sam Houston State University undergraduate students are traveling the world to witness some fantastic astronomical phenomena for the Bucket List Astronomy Tour (BLAsT) Class, led by astronomy professors Dr. Scott Miller and Dr. C. Renee James, a frequent contributor to Astronomy magazine. They’re currently in Arizona and New Mexico, as they spent Sunday beneath the “ring of fire” of the 2012 annular eclipse. As part of the BLAsT Class, the students are writing blogs about their experiences, and James has been kind enough to share them with the readers at First up is a recap of the eclipse from Samantha Toback, a 19-year-old history major with minors in secondary education and Spanish.

On Sunday, I got to witness an astronomical event that I've wanted to see since I was in elementary school. I remember learning about eclipses and wishing I could view one myself. I finally got the chance (nearly 10 years later), and it was at one of the most beautiful places I've been — the Grand Canyon.

A “ring of fire” was on display for the Bucket List Astronomy Tour Class of Sam Houston State University on May 20, 2012. // photo by Nicholas MacDonald
The annular eclipse was one of the most spectacular things I've seen. There were about 100 people on the view tower with us, with large groups on the ground to either side. There were representatives from NASA and SOFIA (including Education Programs Manager Coral Clark) with telescopes set up, allowing the people with only solar glasses the chance to view everything with more detail. Listening to the little kids talk about the wondrous event in the sky was possibly just as awesome as the eclipse itself — I love seeing young kids interested in science.

The eclipse began around 5:27 p.m. We had one of our Galileoscopes set up with a solar filter so we could view the progress of the eclipse. Watching the Moon “eat” the sunspots as it slowly made its way between the Sun and Earth was pretty entertaining. The excitement radiating from the crowd became more and more potent the closer we got to totality. Finally, at around 6:30, annularity was achieved.


The eclipse neared its end as the Sun set over the Grand Canyon. // photo by Laura Durham
Ooh's and aah's were heard all around, and Dr. James jubilantly cried, "Happy New Moon!" The crowd diminished greatly from that point, until only those of us taking observation notes were left. After all of the excitement preceding totality, the end of the eclipse was rather anticlimactic. The sunspots began to reappear as the Moon, Earth, and the Sun fell out of alignment. At one point, near the very end, the Sun was behind parts of the Grand Canyon as well as a tiny portion of the Moon. The Sun set before the eclipse officially ended, unfortunately.

Nicholas MacDonald took a solar filter sheet and attached it to his camera and ended up with some really great pictures of the eclipse and some sunspots. The rest of us who only had point-and-shoot cameras or iPads had to make do with just holding the eclipse glasses in front of the lenses of our cameras. I did manage to get one or two decent photos through the Galileoscope, but mine are nowhere near as awesome as those taken by people who had DSLR cameras.

The V-Bar-V Heritage site is full of astronomical petroglyphs. For this one, sunlight passing through the rock slit illuminated a petroglyph of a corn stalk, indicating that this day was corn planting day for the culture that lived in this valley from about A.D. 950–1300. // photo by Laura Durham
All in all, Sunday was astounding. Being surrounded by people as interested in astronomy as I am while being a part of such a once-in-a-lifetime event was awe-inspiring. I hope that everybody there was able to enjoy the raw beauty of the Grand Canyon as well as the stunning eclipse as much as I did.

After the eclipse, the class headed to the V-Bar-V Heritage Site near Sedona, Arizona, to see the petroglyphs of some ancient astronomers. Eric Webb, a23-year-old animation major, provided this recap:

Monday was personally more amazing for me than viewing an annular eclipse over the Grand Canyon among a large crowd of tourists. On this day, our small group of astronomy students got to look back on past astronomy students — those of the ancient past. We visited a site called V-Bar-V where ancient tribes (more than 900 years ago) created petroglyphs that let them track the seasons, utilizing the position of the Sun’s light relative to the symbolic carvings in the massive cliffs and boulders of the site.

At first glance, the almost childlike doodling carved into the cliff side seems like insignificant gibberish, but when the Sun reaches its peak, the symbols are slashed by shafts of light that line up with significant patterns indicating what time of year it was and what should be done to prepare for future endeavors. The relative crudeness of the carvings is quickly forgotten when you realize that the people that made them had no metal tools and basically created the whole motif using stone on stone. It was most interesting to learn that the site had been vacant for a century or two before Columbus was even born because ancient peoples had a basic understanding that staying in one place for too long depletes the resources and makes the place uninhabitable — a lesson “civilized” society could learn a great deal from.

The Bucket List Astronomy Trip Class, led by Sam Houston State astronomy professors C. Renee James (front row, third from left) and Scott Miller (back row, third from left), spent Monday, May 21, at the V-Bar-B Heritage Site near Sedona, Arizona // photo courtesy C. Renee James

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