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The Totally Freezing Lunar Eclipse of 2019

Sony A7R III: 1.0 sec at f/5.6. ISO 2500 (400mm focal length). 12:22 AM.

"As for the other Matthias who had stirred up the sedition, he (Herod) had him burned alive along with some of his companions. And on that same night there was an eclipse of the Moon. But Herod's illness became more and more severe..." from Flavius Josephus. Total Lunar Eclipse March 5th, 23 BCE.

Over 2000 years ago some historical teacher named Matthias was burned by Herod for inciting his student to remove the statue of a golden eagle from the entrance of a temple, according Flavius. Immediately following this incendiary act, Herod died. Don't mess with science teachers named Matthias!

It was a bitter cold lunar eclipse on January 21st, 2019 C.E., the 27th eclipse of Saros 134, and all that could go wrong, did go wrong, which makes this experience so special and full of lessons. Even though the eclipse began 11:43 pm EST, it is officially called the Jan 21. eclipse due to the benchmark UTC time. UTC is Eastern Standard Time plus 4 hours. The time of totality for this lunar eclipse was 63 minutes. Compare that to the highest time of totality for the solar eclipse of Aug 21, 2017 of 2 minutes and 40 seconds.

Science Germ: A total lunar eclipse happens only during a full Moon when the Earth moves between the Sun and the Moon and casts its shadow on the illuminated surface of the Moon. It does not happen every month during a new Moon as the orbital plane of the Moon is inclined by 5º versus the plane of Earth's orbit around the Sun. During the phase of totality, we perceive a red hue of the Earth's shadow. This red light passes through Earth's atmosphere (all sunrises and all sunsets as viewed from the Moon) and this sunlight reached the reflective surface of the Moon.

In order to properly adjust the settings on the camera, I programed my phone with alarms for the begin of the partial eclipse, when the Moon moves into the umbral shadow of Earth (U1: 10:34 PM), the begin of the total eclipse when the whole Moon is in the umbral shadow (U2: 11:41 PM), the greatest eclipse (12:12 AM), when the Moon exist the umbral shadow (U3: 12:43 AM) and when the partial eclipse ends (U4: 1:50 AM):

By the way, the normal operating temperature for an iPhone is 32ºF to 95ºF, but more on that later. As the temperatures were projected to be below 32ºF for most of the night, I used several extra layers, a down parka, two pairs of gloves and several handwarmers.

Science Germ: I keep speaking of the cold air, which might not be beneficial to my body, however it improves the quality of your observation. Temperature means energy. The more energy the air has, the warmer it is and the more it moves due to the kinetic energy of the air molecules. The more they move, they more the interfere with the light photons that hit the sensor of your camera - or the retina of your eye. Less movement, less interference, better observation and astronomical seeing.

Back to my observation: I scouted my position the night before and picked the northwest corner of the Kennedy Reservoir in Central Park, as it provided a nice backdrop with Manhattan's colorfully lighted skyline. My trusted camera equipment was the Sony a7r III with a 100-400 mm 4.5-5.6 telephoto and a 24-70mm 2.8 wide lens with a Tycka tripod rated for a maximum load capacity of 26.5 lbs, not considering the potentially devastating effects of 30 to 40 mph wind gusts. My secondary point-and-shoot camera was a Sony Alpha 5100 and a Grypton tripod. I packed up my gear and went uptown to the reservoir. After I exited the cab and wanted to put on my gloves, I realized I already lost one of the warmer pairs. I walked up to the running path at the reservoir and already realized that in addition to the low temperature the wind chill made it even worse. I looked up and the Moon was already up high in the sky and beautifully bright. Bands of clouds moved swiftly through the night. They would not pose any problems. The wide lens was essentially useless, other than the panoramic picture of New York's midtown skyline:

Sony A7R III: 1/25 sec at f/2.8. ISO 1000 (70mm focal length)

I marveled at the bright Moon, and after a while started taking pictures as it moved into the umbral shadow. My phone quickly died due to the extreme cold.

Science Germ: Why do batteries lose power so fast when it is cold? Lithium-ion batteries, like the one in mobile devices, are temperature sensitive. When it gets cold, the reduces electrochemical reaction and increases internal resistance of the battery. Higher resistance means lower voltage.

The alarms wouldn't be working as I didn't have a backup clock (always have backups). Plus I forgot my binoculars. Nevertheless, I had an extra battery pack for the phone but the cable came out again and again.

Back to the eclipse. The trees surrounding the reservoir provided an interesting foreground to the partially eclipsed Moon. Sometimes, you just get a little lucky.

Sony A7R III: 1/25 sec at f/5.6. ISO 1000 (400mm focal length)

Did I mention already how cold it was and the effect on my fingers? Which leads me to another:

Science Germ: Why do fingers get cold so fast? Our body regulates temperature in the cold focuses on the core where the vital organs are, by restricting blood vessels in the extremities (fingers and feet/toes). If you experience numbness, go inside, run warm water over your hands and feet or just cry in quiet solitude. Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops below ~95º F, which is a decline of about 3.5%.

As I was watching the skyward performance of the show, there was a runner doing laps around the Kennedy Reservoir, a 1.58 mile track. This was between 10:30 PM and 11:15 PM. Crazy people in New York, I tell ya.

The partially eclipse Moon through tree branches

Sony 5100α: 1/20 sec at f/3.6. ISO 3200 (16mm focal length)

My phone started working again and with the proximity alert of the start of the total eclipse, the wind picked up. It knocked my tripod with the camera and the telephotolense over and through a reflex, I save the whole thing and a potentially costly insurance claim. Since the metal of the tripod is a very good thermal conductor, it was cold, and the little warmth left in my hand transferred quickly away from my skin to the metal surface.

Science Germ: Speaking of thermal conduction, as my fingers got progressively colder, I tried to counter the effect by using handwarmers. These little power plants create energy through an exothermic reaction, that starts once you take them out of the plastic pouch. The oxygen in the air reacts with the water (stored in coal) and salt in the pouch, essentially a rusting process. The warmth can linger for hours.

I was pretty miserable but was able to get off a few good shots of the approaching eclipse. After two hours in the cold. my hands had exchanged enough energy with the cold air, felt lifeless and I decided, dejectedly, to break camp and leave for home, not knowing 100% whether my photographic trials yielded enough good material. Once I was in my apartment building, there was a neighbor outside looking at the eclipse and talking with a friend on the phone. and asking me: "are you seeing this?" Duh! I went inside, checked the media card and noticed my shots of the total eclipse aren't sharp. Never one to give up easily in the face of cold weather, I went back outside with my tripod and set up on the stairs to the building (see below).

For the next hour, I made up for the sub-par eclipse pictures and churned out the second half of the collage. Had I taken the time to check my TPE app for the Moon's location from our street, I might have taken better shots and a bracketed (the phases at equitemporal points) sequence. But then I wouldn't have learned so much about my fingers and the cold. Did I mention that the low was a -9º Fahrenheit (-22º Celsius) with the effect of wind chill ?

Science Germ: Wind chill, according the National Weather Service, is how cold it feels when the wind is factored in given the heat transfer theory based on the loss of heat from a body to its surroundings. It also assumes no impact from the Sun. With wind gust speeds of about 25-40 mph at a calm 15º Fahrenheit can lower the real feel to -4º to -8º Fahrenheit

In the name of science and curiosity, I am happy to present the following eclipse photos:

And this collage with the respective camera settings:

Thanks for reading. To close, here is an excerpt from a writer far more skilled at capturing emotions with words:

Still I Rise (3rd Para)

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

- Maya Angelou

Tips on photographing a lunar eclipse (or other celestial events):

Shooting the eclipse reminded me of three things: prepare, keep things simple, and follow rules other photographers have shared. Nevertheless, here is a compilation of topics to focus on when photographing celestial motives.

1. Composing Your Shot. You can use the www.stellarium.com or the Android or iPhone app "The Photographer's Ephemeris" https://www.photoephemeris.com to determine where the Moon (or any celestial object) will be in the night sky for your location at your point of time. That will help you figure out how to compose your shot, meaning foreground, background or a close-up of the object. The TPE app will also tell you the various times for civil, nautical and astronomical sunsets/sunrises. The Dark Site map will help you find a place that has low light pollution.

2. Understanding Your Camera Settings in Your Sleep. Try your camera out beforehand. A lot. Whether you own one or rent one, you should read the manual and search online for other people's previous experiences and guidelines. I have listed a few at the bottom. Adjust your basic settings beforehand, e.g. shoot in JPG/RAW mode. You should have a checklist of your preferred settings that are tried and true. Shoot with those settings first and then once you have the images you hope to get, you can change and play with your settings. You should be able to change the three important exposure settings in your sleep: ISO (the higher, the more light sensitive the camera sensor), shutter speed (the amount of time your shutter is open; the longer it is open, the more light will be collected on the camera the sensor) and aperture (the f-stop or opening in your lens. The larger, the bigger the opening and close objects will be sharp and distant objects blurry).

3. Weather Forecast. The astronomer, astrophotographer, name your -er, greatest obstacle for observing or photographing is the weather. You might be well prepared, have your camera gear ready, have the perfectly composed shot that will land you the coveted National Geographic award and yet, the weather might just not cooperate. Nothing you can do (other than renting a private jet and flying above the clouds). Enjoy the fact that you do not have control over these things. Nevertheless, you can pick a location with a high probability of clear weather, like a high desert location (Atacama, Arizona, Sahara).

4. Have Extras. That includes battery packs, memory cards, and printouts of your camera settings handy as well as a backup watch/clock to remind you of the various phases of your celestial phenomenon. When shooting Milky Way or observing with astronomy friends, have a red light, head light, as to not disturb other observers eyesight.

5. Dress Appropriately. Pack additional clothing and food/water and assume the worst, that you will be out all night and the weather might turn on you. It gets really cold in the desert once the Sun is gone, even during summer.

6. Meditate. Meditate on the amazing surroundings of your location, our planet, our Solar System, Milky Way, Universe and our existence in it.


NASA - Lunar Eclipse Page

National Weather Service - Wind Chill Chart

Dark Site Light Pollution Map

Michael Frye

Fred Espenak - Mr. Eclipse

AAA Astrophotography Group

Babak Tafrehsi - The World at Night

Stellarium Astronomy Software

The Photographer's Ephemeris