Testing Equipment for the Eclipse Megamovie

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Wednesday, May 10, 2017

This guest blog comes to us from Juan Carlos Martínez Oliveros.

The Eclipse Megamovie Project needs more than 1,000 photographers. // Google
I see the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, as a great opportunity for scientific developments, and a unique opportunity for scientists and the public to work together to make awesome discoveries. Just knowing approximately how many people will see this event and that in many ways each member of the public will be a scientist (at least for a day) fills me with energy. That’s why I’m honored to be part of the Eclipse Megamovie Project.

The author boards the plane for the city of Comodoro Rivadavia, in the Argentinian province of Chubut. // Juan Carlos Martínez Oliveros
This first-of-its-kind citizen science project will produce a high definition, time-expanded video of the August eclipse whose zone of totality will cross North America from Oregon to South Carolina. The video will be pieced together from images collected by over 1,000 carefully selected volunteers at various points along the eclipse path. This expanded coverage will provide continuous datasets that far exceed what any one person could capture from a single location, where the longest duration of totality possible would be under three minutes.

This shot from the plane shows it approaching the Patagonia region of Argentina. // Juan Carlos Martínez Oliveros
The Eclipse Megamovie, by contrast, will be closer to 93 minutes long, or the time it takes for the Moon's shadow to cross the U.S. The project will add a new dimension to our studies of the Sun’s faint outer atmosphere – the corona – and potentially help us understand more about the size and inner workings of the Sun. The Megamovie will also be freely available to scientists and educators, as well as anyone who would like mementos of the 2017 total solar eclipse.

A few of the author’s fellow observers of the February 26, 2017 annular eclipse. // Juan Carlos Martínez Oliveros
As is usual for any observational campaign, testing the equipment is one of the most important steps. I was thus asked to go to the Argentinean Patagonia for the annular solar eclipse that occurred on February 26, 2017, to test some of our ideas for equipment that our project volunteers might consider using in addition to their own cameras, tripods, etc., for the August 21st eclipse. This optional equipment includes a customized Raspberry Pi circuit board for helping one determine their correct GPS coordinates, as well as certain special camera lens filters.

This was a long trip starting in Berkeley, with a short stop in sunny Bogotá, Colombia, my original hometown, for some preparation. After four days of tuning and a bit of redesign with the help of the students and professors at the National Astronomical Observatory in Bogotá, I was ready to fly to Buenos Aires.

The author’s equipment setup. // Juan Carlos Martínez Oliveros
The flight to Buenos Aires was very nice on a clean and comfortable Airbus 330. I managed to watch at least five movies during the flight. I landed in Buenos Aires at about 1 a.m. local time and discovered that I had forgotten my SD card, without which my Raspberry Pi experiment would not work. So I ran to the airport store and bought one. It was a long day, but the gods must not have been happy, because they made me wait for another two and half hours for a taxi!

The author’s Raspberry Pi and a Raspberry Pi Camera V2 with a 95mm lens and solar filter. // Juan Carlos Martínez Oliveros
I slept for a few hours in a hotel and fixed my Raspberry Pi, but to get to the eclipse location, another shorter flight to the city of Comodoro Rivadavia, in the province of Chubut, was next on my schedule. I thus took an Uber to the domestic airport in Buenos Aires. My driver was very interested in astronomy and astrophysics and asked very good questions, which kept my enthusiasm level high. At 10am I was onboard a Boeing 737 that took me to Comodoro Rivadavia, a small city in the Argentinean Patagonia with an economy based on the oil industry.

Quite a few people here reminded me that many of the planes and sorties to defend (or attack, depending on your point of view) the Malvinas Islands from the British forces took off from their city. I did some final testing in Comodoro, and after a short night’s sleep, woke up at 5 a.m. on February 26 and drove my rental car to the village of Facundo. It took me about 4 hours to get there and was a real adventure given the terrain and that I had never driven a manual-transmission car before - what a ride!

The author’s Google Pixel phone with 20x lens and solar filter. // Juan Carlos Martínez Oliveros
Following “Provincial Road 43” (a dirt road) as suggested by Google Maps, I stopped about 20 minutes south of Facundo where I found other people getting ready to observe the eclipse. I set up my equipment, a Google Pixel with a 20x lens and a Raspberry Pi with a photo lens, and was ready to start my tests. The Pixel had a draft version of the Eclipse Megamovie Android app that I am helping to develop, so I could test the optical setup and app together. The Raspberry Pi setup was a more complicated system then I had envisioned, but in the end, everything worked as expected and I got some great eclipse photos.

Not only was this eclipse observation test a success but also a fun adventure. I definitely felt a little like Indiana Jones going to these out of the way places and overcoming the obstacles I encountered. But in Facundo, other solar scientists invited me to a celebratory party and many people were very interested our Eclipse Megamovie Project.

Image of the February 26, 2017 annular eclipse taken with a 95mm lens attached to a Raspberry Pi and a Raspberry Pi Camera V2. // Juan Carlos Martínez Oliveros
I came back to Comodoro Rivadavia after the eclipse and then took a plane back to Buenos Aires. I felt invigorated! The day was amazing with an eclipse in the morning and a beautiful sunset at night. Besides the results I obtained, I was also amazed by the curiosity of the people I met throughout the trip, and how they wanted answers to questions that are often not simple to explain. It was wonderful to see so many people embracing a natural phenomenon as their own, especially in Facundo. Though I am sure the August 2017 eclipse that is set to cross North America will equally demonstrate that this desire for knowledge is not exclusive to a small village in the middle of the Argentinean Patagonia.

How to Join the Eclipse Megamovie Project

Local villagers in Facundo, Argentina help to educate their community about the February 26 annular eclipse. // Juan Carlos Martínez Oliveros
Our aim is to recruit over 1,000 photographers with the appropriate equipment and skills* who will be on the path of totality on August 21, 2017. Team members receive training and submit a practice image before the eclipse. Once you qualify, you will receive a pin to designate your status as a member of the official Megamovie Photo Team. Your name will also be included in the credits of the final Eclipse Megamovie. If you want to participate, visit our website and SIGN IN to apply!

Basic equipment and skills necessary for participating in the Eclipse Megamovie Project

  • Camera: interchangeable lens digital camera (DSLR or mirrorless)
  • Telephoto or zoom lens: minimum focal length of 300mm
  • A stable and level tripod
  • The ability to identify the GPS coordinates and time of your photographs to the nearest second

About the Author

Sunset in Argentina — the perfect ending to the perfect day! // Juan Carlos Martínez Oliveros
Dr. Juan Carlos Martínez Oliveros is a Colombian astronomer who currently works at the University of California, Berkeley‘s SPace Sciences Laboratory (SSL). In addition to joining SSL’s Multiverse education team on the Eclipse Megamovie Project, Juan is also a scientist on NASA's Solar Probe Plus mission, studies type II and III solar radio bursts using radiometers onboard the NASA twin spacecraft STEREO A and B, and uses data from NASA’s RHESSI and Solar Dynamics Observatory missions for his research on solar flare physics and the challenging problem of sunquake generation.

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