Eclipse ’12: The making of a mini-megamovie

Nature smiles on HAO team in Australia

November 26, 2012 | A persistent overcast had a group of HAO staff biting their nails just after dawn on November 14. Stationed on a beach at Palm Cove, Queensland, they were ready to test their ambitious vision of creating unprecedented, crowdsourced footage of an eclipse—but it wasn’t clear that the weather would cooperate.

crowds at 2012 soloar eclipse
Equipped with everything from smartphones to high-end cameras,

solar scientists and eclipse aficionados gathered on the beach at Palm Cove, just north of Cairns, Australia, to capture the early-morning eclipse. (Photos by Lance Jones, NCAR/HAO, unless otherwise noted.) 

“The early morning sky was cloudy to the point where we missed ‘first contact,’ the time at which the Moon starts to block out the Sun,” says HAO’s Scott McIntosh, who is heading up the Eclipse Megamovie Project with colleagues at NCAR and the University of California, Berkeley.

This scientific cliffhanger had a happy ending: the clouds parted just before totality, allowing people on hand to witness the Sun fully obscured by the Moon above the Coral Sea for about two minutes.

solar eclipse 2012
Clouds loomed at various points during the eclipse, but they parted for HAO’s team at Palm Cove just as totality began.

“We got to see the entire period of totality before the clouds closed over again,” Scott reports. “The experience was magical for all watching, as evidenced by a chorus of oohs and aahs.”

Solar physicists timed a major meeting in Cairns to coincide with this eclipse, but the HAO team had an additional mission while they were down under. Working with a variety of collaborators, they’re hoping to enlist a platoon of laypeople to videotape and photograph a 2017 U.S. total eclipse whose path will stretch from Oregon to South Carolina.

Scott McIntosh during eclipse photography at Palm Cove, AU
HAO’s Scott McIntosh and colleagues used the Australian eclipse as a testbed for the 2017 Eclipse Megamovie Project.

To test their concept, the team encouraged Australians to document the eclipse and add their imagery to the project’s website. HAO will assemble the contributions in various forms over the next few months.

“The Australian public were really engaged by this project,” says Scott. “I'm excited to see what comes out of this unique observational data set.”

HAO has a rich history of eclipse documentation from remote sites, dating back to the 1950s. Such elaborate expeditions aren’t as crucial as they once were, since there’s now a much wider variety of high-quality solar data available from space and from land-based sites like HAO’s Mauna Loa Solar Observatory. However, even these sources can’t furnish the panoramic, multi-viewpoint view that the Eclipse Megamovie Project hopes to provide.

Though they didn’t mount a full-on expedition, the HAO team at Palm Cove brought plenty of cameras to capture their own takes on the eclipse.

Jonathon Bradshaw, an amateur astronomer from Queensland, prepares for the moment of photographic truth.

“Everyone was left with a real feeling of the Sun's beauty,” says Scott. And with the Moon serving as an obscuring disk, “the public got to see what we solar physicists see every day from our coronagraphic instruments.”

HAO’s Lance Jones adds: “Just to put the exclamation point on the event, right afterwards the tide came in and chased everyone off the beach.”


Group photo of HAO team at Australia eclipse, Nov. 2012
HAO staff and collaborators on hand for the Australian eclipse.
Front row (left to right): Joan Burkepile (HAO), Scott McIntosh (HAO), Paul Cally (HAO affiliate scientist based at Monash University), Paul Charbonneau (HAO alumnus now at University of Montreal), Lucia Kleint (HAO postdoctoral researcher).
Back row (left to right): Kim Streander (manager of several HAO eclipse expeditions in the 1990s, now at the National Solar Observatory), Hugh Hudson (University of California, Berkeley; co–principal investigator for the Eclipse Megamovie Project), Lance Jones (HAO).