OK, one more eclipse shot

By Phil Plait | May 23, 2012 1:28 pm

I’ve posted a lot of stuff about Sunday’s annular eclipse (see Related Links below), and I figured I was done… but then I got a pretty remarkable picture sent to me.

During the eclipse, in northern California, two men sent a small (6 cubic meter) helium-filled balloon up to 90,000 feet (roughly 27 km). Equipped with a camera and an ingenious system that used puffs of gas to orient the payload, they took this pretty amazing shot of the eclipse:

[Click to penumbrenate.]

That’s the Earth on the left (duh), and on the upper right you can see the eclipsed Sun! They used a solar filter to cover half the camera’s view so that they could get the correct exposure for both the Earth and the much brighter Sun.

I really enjoyed reading their story on how they set this up and executed it. I especially liked how they launched, sat around to watch the eclipse itself, then set off to find the balloon once it came back down (shredded after it popped at its lofty apex).

I love stuff like this! Basic equipment, clever people, and a can-do attitude results in something remarkable. Well done!

P.S. My friend and fellow Boulder astronomer Stuart Robbins posted a series of lovely timed sequences from the eclipse that he took in Albuquerque. It’s well worth a click!

Related Posts:

A fake and a real view of the solar eclipse… FROM SPACE!
Gallery: When the Moon ate (most of) the Sun
The May 20, 2012 annular solar eclipse in motion
Followup: Supereclipse

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (18)

Links to this Post

  1. Friday Links | May 26, 2012
  1. Ok, perhaps this is a silly question but it’s been bugging me for a while and this picture reminded me.

    Why is the sun so tiny in this photo? And why does the moon look much smaller when you view it from an airplane?

    On Earth the eclipse looked giant. I would think 90,000 ft closer would just make it look bigger. Perhaps it has something to do with the atmosphere magnifying the light?

  2. Alex

    Grr, arg! Stuart Robbins’ series of photos make me seriously regret moving from Albuquerque a decade ago. Watching the eclipse from Elena Gallegos Park, as the sun set across the high New Mexico desert, must have been stunning!

  3. Keith Hearn

    One option for stabilizing the camera on the balloon would be to have a tail on the capsule, basically a big vane like the vertical stabilizer on an airplane. It would keep the box pointing in one direction relative to the wind. Then a motor could be used to point the camera. Given that the wind at altitude is pretty steady and predictable, this seems like it would give a fairly steady pointing. Then use an electronic compass & gyro to get precise pointing info to use to direct a servo pan/tilt system to point the camera. I’d suggest it on the project’s site, but it doesn’t seem to have any way to leave comments.

  4. Amazing.

    Glad I took the time to read it… I assumed at first glance it was from the ISS and thought it was very cool. Finding out it was done with a weather balloon hack is jaw-dropping.

  5. @2 Alex – Thanks! We actually tried to get into Elena Gallegos Park, but we were told it would cost $2 to park and it was a designated “eclipse viewing area” and they were expecting a few hundred people. Driving up to it, there was a road that paralleled it just to the South with residential houses, so we turned around with the GPS and found how to get to that. So just 100 ft away from the park, but with absolutely NO crowd around us! Perfect, clean, unobstructed view to the south, really couldn’t have asked for a better location.

  6. Alex

    @5 Stuart – Thank you sir! Not only for the wonderful sequence of pictures but for reminding me what an awe inspiring view can be had from the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. It’s been ten years and I didn’t live there long but seeing the photos brought me back to many a sunset shared with my family from that particular vantage point.

  7. Roger Wilco

    @3 Keith — Only one problem with that idea: no relative wind if you’re a balloon! Sure the wind at altitude blows steadily but the balloon moves at the same speed so the vane would have no effect. Think of a boat adrift in a fast-flowing stream. The keel doesn’t keep it pointed into the stream, nor is the rudder of any use.

  8. What an awesome idea! Wonder if the balloon was able to travel fast enough up there to make totality last longer too!? 8)

    @1. Perry asked :

    “Ok, perhaps this is a silly question but it’s been bugging me for a while and this picture reminded me. Why is the sun so tiny in this photo? And why does the moon look much smaller when you view it from an airplane?”

    Our Sun and Moon have the same angular size which – very slight perigee and apogee / peirhelion and aphelion (“furthest and nearest us”) effects aside – remains constant.

    You may be thinking here of the famous Moon illusion where the brain is fooled into thinking the Moon (& also constellations and Sun too) are larger when they’re nearer the horizon which the BA has written about on this blog before. It may also have to do with the camera ‘s field of view and zooming in onto the eclipse or not.

    Not a silly question tho’ – no such thing in my view. (Well almost anyhow!)

  9. You may be thinking here of the famous Moon illusion where the brain is fooled into thinking the Moon (& also constellations and Sun too) are larger when they’re nearer the horizon which the BA has written about on this blog before.

    See for instance :


    with links to another good article – and also see here :


    Plus see :


    For the difference in size between perigee (Moon nearest us) and apogee (Moon furthest from us) and click on my name for this comment for a bit more on the negliable difference perihelion makes for our Sun’s apparent size. Hope that helps. :-)

  10. Rim

    @8. I was thinking, wouldn’t the sun also appear smaller because of the solar filter and because the photo was taken from outside much of the atmosphere? The filter could clip much of the coronal light and there’s almost no atmospheric scattering up there, so the halo we’re so accustomed to seeing wouldn’t be there either.

    I’m a bit out of my depth here, but I thought I’d check if this makes any sense at all :)

  11. gopher65

    @ 1, 8, and 9:

    I’d guess that it has to do with the camera being very zoomed *out* rather than in. They were trying to capture not only the Sun, but the Earth.

    For instance: on one of my little point & shoot cameras in order for the zoom to show approximately the same field of view and zoom level as my eyes I have to have it zoomed in to 3x. Any less and the camera would show things as being smaller in the final picture than what I could see.

    I assume this is the same effect. The image has a very wide field of view, so in order to fit everything in the frame it has to either be stretched (and distorted) or everything has to be smaller. The 3rd option is to take multiple frames and glue them together with photoeditting software (to get a panoramic style picture), but it’s probably pretty hard to get multiple good images in a row with a balloon.

  12. Rob

    Perry et al… saying the eclipse “looks smaller in the photo” is meaningless. It depends on the size of the reproduction of the photograph, and the distance you’re viewing it from, as well as on the focal length of the lens.

    If I stick my face right up against the screen then the image of the sun looks bigger than it does if I go outside and squint up at it. If I sit back a few feet then it looks like a tiny dot. You might as well ask why when you take a photo of your house it looks smaller, cos it fits on a 6 x 4 inch bit of paper!

    Also, who say the moon looks smaller when you view it from an aircraft? There’s nor reason it should, other than perhaps that you don’t have any nearby “earthly” objects to compare it to, as you do at ground level.

  13. Thought I’d mention that I’ve finally made a YouTube video fo my sequence and included a movie from the eclipsed sun setting. Since links end up getting screened out here, I’ll attempt to make it get through. Go to the standard YouTube URL, after the .com and / stuff, type watch?v= and then ElHKLYAMD4Y . Maybe this’ll get through easily?

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Stuart R. : Not sure if you already know but the Bad Astronomer personally moderates this blog and would, I’d expect, allow such a link though after a certain moderation delay – time depedent on when he gets to see it I guess.

    Let’s see if this :


    works better for y’all. :-)

    Hmm .. you seem to have Pachelbel’s Cannon :



    playing a little slower than usual there. Still works pretty well though – cheers. :-)

    (What can I say, I’m a classic buff, its my Mum’s favourite song and yes, i’m a pedant! *Shrug.* ) 😉

    Note : three links is about the maximum you’re allowed here I think – you don’t want to push that – I’ve found out the hard way before. I think. I’d also very strongly advise *AGAINST* trying to skirt moderation – it’s a bannable offence here understandably given the BA apparently has quite a struggle with spam and is rather temporally challenged.


    “The Ramans do everything in threes.”
    – Arthur C. Clarke, ‘Rendezvous with Rama’, Final page (252), Pan
    Books Ltd, 1973.

  15. SkyGazer

    “I’d also very strongly advise *AGAINST* trying to skirt moderation”

    Agreed, however I do so sometimes, but only and only then when it´s clear that the BA is out of town and it would otherwise be lost in time.
    And ofcourse if it is on topic and adding to the post (and totally non offensive).

  16. I had a post with a single link once and it didn’t go through, went into automatic moderation or something instead of the live “this shows in 15 minutes” or whatever. So … whatever, now I know. :)

    And yes, I was trying to go for something that was easily in the public domain other than the sound of silence, and I happened to have Pachelbel’s Canon in D on my ‘puter.


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