Chasing the eclipse with a €40,000 scientific camera

Videographers, air corps officers, physicists and a journalist on the flight of a lifetime

The Eclipse as seen from Trinity College main square in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

The Eclipse as seen from Trinity College main square in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

The morning of the solar eclipse saw 12 of us packed into a military aircraft flying at 13,000ft, 2½ hours off the northwest coast of Ireland.

A €40,000 scientific camera transported from Hawaii was sticking out of an open window and we were in the path of totality, where the moon would completely cover the surface of the sun for just three minutes.

Rather upsettingly, we couldn’t see a thing.

The plan to chase the eclipse to capture images was conceived last October by Prof Peter Gallagher, a solar physicist at TCD.

“What struck me was that this is the last European solar eclipse until 2026 and anywhere on the ground was likely to be overcast,” he said. “I knew if we were to have any chance of getting high resolution scientific photographs, we’d have to be on a plane. A plane with a window we could open.”

The aim of the mission was to investigate the atmosphere of the sun by taking high-resolution images. “When a total eclipse occurs, it cancels out the power of the sun leaving a ring or corona made of hydrogen and helium, oxygen and even fragments of iron, and that’s what we want to photograph,” Prof Gallagher said.

After a few phone calls with the Air Corps, a Minister and some Hawaiian scientists who had developed a specialist camera, the plan was set.

#eclipse2015

First contact

It was all very routine on the flight until someone in the aft of the plane shouted “First contact!” and with that all of the passengers leapt to their feet. We had reached the moment when the sun and moon touch in the horizon for the first time. There were just 29 minutes left until totality.

To everyone’s alarm, we were still in dense cloud.

We grabbed a few fleeting keyholes in the sky to take photographs and then the sun disappeared again.

It was decision time.

We would have to either hope for some luck at a lower altitude or climb above the cloud, which would make it too dangerous to open the window.

In the cockpit, Lieut Col Kevin O’Ceallaigh spotted a corridor of clear sky and started to work out some calculations on his hand.

“It’s decision time Peter,” crackled O’Ceallaigh through the headset.

Perhaps Prof Gallagher felt a sense of destiny. Not only did the solar eclipse fall on the 20th, but so too did the spring equinox and also his birthday.

Breathtaking beauty

First a bite, then a crescent, then a diamond ring of light and finally, a mystical dark hole in the sky surrounded by a perfect circle of light. I stopped taking photographs after a minute and just stared while everyone else furiously tried to get the shots they needed.

It was gone as quickly as it came. Slapping each other on the back and whooping at our fortune, we passed round a hip flask of 21-year-old Teeling whiskey and saluted the scientist on his 42nd birthday.

It is one he is unlikely to forget.

Jonathan McCrea presents Futureproof a weekly science programme on Newstalk