Solstice Eclipse and Happy New Year 2011 (late)

An arbitrary date.

I was going to begin this post by saying that I had meant to share some New Year's wishes with you on the proper date, but it got me to thinking. What is the proper date? Our modern calendar is based upon the time it takes for the Earth to complete an elliptical orbit around the sun and is sub-divided into the number of times the Earth's moon completes its own orbit around the planet and then further divided into the number of times the Earth rotates about its own axis. The day and the month are both based on obvious natural phenomenon that occur with regularity and rapidity on (nearly) all spots of the globe. The year, by contrast, only displays regularity when careful measurements of the sun's position is noted or when one occupies a portion of the globe subject to seasonality. Accurate measurement without instrumentation is difficult, and seasonality can be as much subject to variant weather as it can to time of year and, in any case, spans such a large timeline that it isn't an accurate milestone for assigning the new year. It follows, therefore, that New Year's Day can be arbitrarily chosen. Our Gregorian calendar uses January the first, though other calendars use cultural, religious or (perhaps more wisely) astronomical points for calibration. It so happens that I think winter solstice would make the ideal New Year's Day, but I suppose the difference between the 21st of December and the first of January is small enough. Then again, this solstice is the Southern Hemisphere's summer solstice. We would then have to consider using the solstice at the Earth's closest approach to the sun, perihelion, which occurred on the third of this month. Of course, then we'd come up with the problem that perihelion changes throughout the year over the course of a ~26,000 year cycle. So leave it on January first then, and Happy 2011 to you all and please don't get me started on that whole "2011" business! For a brief description of how these images were made scroll all the way down.

Stanford Memorial and a solstice moon

Stanford Memorial and a solstice moon.

If you were to set up a camera and take a photograph of the sky for a year and use those images to trace the path of the sun over the course of an entire year, you would draw a path surrounding the Earth called the ecliptic. Do the same with the moon and you'll see that the two traces are at an angle to one another. The two intersect at nodes where you observe an eclipse (solar or lunar). Observation of the position of lunar and solar eclipses was how early civilizations first traced the location of the eclipses and (obviously) how that curve earned its name. The "nodes" progress "around" the ecliptic over time, i.e. the dates of the eclipses change relative to the previous year, and every now and then a node coincides with a particular date or event. Those of us inhabiting North America were lucky enough to witness a full lunar eclipse coincident with the winter solstice this year - estimated to be the first since the seventeenth century. Now, the two events are independent and don't mean anything together except that, due to its angle to the ecliptic and its occurring during the winter solstice, the moon was very high in the sky during this eclipse.

I had waited anxiously for the forecasts to come out a few days before the eclipse and was saddened to notice that cloud cover would be very thick for the week surrounding the solstice. Nevertheless, I noticed a few breaks in the thick cloud cover of northern California long enough to grab a few images and headed onto the campus of Stanford to use the mission style porticos and the Memorial Church facade as a foreground for this beautiful natural phenomenon.

Stanford and the lunar eclipse

During the weekends, the memorial quadrangle is packed with tourists, weddings and other photographers all jockeying to grab an image or two of the iconic buildings. At 12:15 AM local time, on a weekday - the place was absolutely vacant. I had the entire expanse to myself - if only I could spot the moon (darkened to a rich copper and impossible to spot behind even the thinnest cirrus clouds)! Some patience paid off and I caught a glimpse of Luna through the veil of winter rain clouds and the amber of reflected city lights. Most lunar eclipse images are shot with long lenses to capture as much detail of an unusually colored moon as possible. I (predictably) went the wind-angle route, however, choosing to capture the entire, electrifying scene was it was laid before me. In the first image above, a low, wide-angle shot was absolutely necessary to get anything of the church facade in the same frame as the moon. Any further back and the moon was too high in the sky and you get the second image on this page, admittedly nice, but lacking some of that "looking up" drama present in the first image. Perhaps my favorite photograph, however, is the one below - a vertical panorama composite image of red Luna in context with the quadrangle and a few brilliant stars. I was about to leave when I glanced back and saw a long break in the clouds and could tell that the moon was about to emerge from shadow and shine down brightly once again (you can see that the upper left limb of the moon is slightly brighter as it emerges).

Instantly I was transported back to my parent's backyard as a kid, behind the house in which I grew up. It was a chilly fall night and my dad had kept us kids up a little later than usual because there was going to be a full lunar eclipse that night. We waited up, excited by the staying of bedtime and the feeling of privilege which accompanies that right and not really understanding what an eclipse was. Finally it was time - we watched the full transit, shivering in the dew covered lawn as the moon darkened and our eyes adjusted to see its brilliant red color. The stars came out as if they'd been hiding from the light of the moon's fulminant glow and it moved us all in the same way people have been moved by this spectacle since time immemorial. It's being moved that gets me - why are we moved? Some would posit, if you'll allow me to turn an Aristotelian astronomical phrase on its ear, a First-Mover, but I do not. I think there is a biological reason we are compelled by beautiful natural images or sights. I think it is something like laughter, to quote Robert Heinlien "They laugh because it hurts too much..."

All alone beneath a copper moon.

Full lunar
Full lunar

Some technical details.

All of these images had to be made with multiple exposures on my Nikon D700. The first images required a standard set of five frames, bracketed each by 1 EV and combined in photomatix. I used my typical workflow for the facade of the church and then used a single exposure frame that captured the clouds and the moon to bring in the sky via photoshop and some custom masking. The second image was done similarly, this time I had to use two different exposures for the sky - one for the moon and one for the stars. Both were shot at ISO 200 using a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 set to 14mm and f/8 with exposure times of 2, 4, 8, 15 and 30 seconds. The last image is a vertical panorama composed of six images that were manually aligned (there wasn't enough information in the images of the sky to properly align them automatically. This means that the position of some of the visible stars are not accurate in the last image, but, importantly, the position, size and color of the moon and church are accurate. Exposure settings for the images comprising the vertorama were as follows. Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 66mm and f/3.5, ISO 800, 1/8 second.