Date: August 8, 2010

Title: How to Successfully Chase a Solar Eclipse


Podcaster: Edgardo Molina

Organization: Pleiades. Research and Astronomical Studies A.C. (web site soon to be presented also in English)

Description: Solar Eclipse Chasing has become a fanatic activity among amateur astronomers who seek the path of totality wherever it hits on the surface of the planet. Ruben Ruiz is a friend of mine who has shared his passion for astronomy since we were kids. Nowadays he has been chasing these events and have a lot of stories to be told. Here I present an informal chat on the subject with him.

Bio: Edgardo Molina. B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the Anahuac University in Mexico City. Post graduate studies in IT Engineering and a Masters Degree in IT Engineering. Working for IPTEL, an IT firm delivering solutions to enterprises since 1998. Space exploration enthusiast who participated in several Mexican space related activities. Licensed amateur radio operator with call sign XE1XUS. Amateur astronomer since childhood and actual founder and president of the Pleiades. Research and Astronomical Studies A.C. in Mexico City, Mexico. Avid visual observer and astrophotography fan. Public reach through education in exact sciences, engineering and astronomy. Lectures and teaching in several universities since 1993.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Karl Dentrich. This episode is dedicated to my sister Karin, who guided me while growing up.


Hello! This is Edgardo Molina, from Pleiades. Research and Astronomical Studies in Mexico City, Mexico. I have the pleasure of hosting you again for this episode of the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast.

Today we are having an informal chat with Ruben Ruiz, who have dealt for years chasing solar eclipses, this interesting subject will be reviewed in deep within the allowed time for this show. I hope you enjoy it!

Ruben, welcome to today’s podcast. It is a pleasure being with you here.

I have an interview for you that I hope I am not abusing for your time and experience! Just joking…

Here we go!

Ruben. When did you decide that solar eclipse chasing would become a passion for you? Who got you interested?

It all started when I was a kid. My dad has a Telescope and he encouraged me to look at the moon and planets. I recall he always purchased an astronomical yearbook and I was always looking for Solar Eclipses, with the sad surprise that they were always in far away locations. In year 1991 I was saw my first Solar Eclipse in Mexico City, and that was just great. Some years later I decided to become a Solar Eclipse Chaser, and here I am now!

How do Mexico participate in these activities nowadays?

Unfortunately it seems like I am the only Mexican Eclipse Chaser. I do know very good Mexican Astronomers and aficionados. Some of them have seen some Solar Eclipses, but it looks like no one else is chasing them on a yearly basis as I do.

Why do you think a total solar eclipse is a unique experience to pursue?

That’s difficult to explain. It is just a great experience. I have seen people with tears in their eyes during a Solar Eclipse, me included. You need to live to really understand it. No matter how good the videos or the pictures are, they have not been able to be close to what you really see with your own eyes during an Eclipse. During a Solar Eclipse, several senses come into action. You see it, of course, and it is just a great view. You feel it. It gets cooler or windy. You hear it. You hear the birds and other animals, the people shouting, the cameras clicking. I do believe that everyone should give it a try once in their lives to see a Solar Eclipse. They might get in love with them as I do. Having said that, you also get the chance to go to exotic places and get to know different cultures around the world. In all the expeditions I have made, I have had the chance to be in different countries for several days before the Eclipse. Thanks to this hobby I have been already in 5 continents.

Could you please brief us on your expeditions?

I started chasing eclipses in year 2003. That was an Annular Eclipse in Iceland. As part of the trip we went to the Faroe Islands and to Greenland. In that tour I really got hooked in this hobby. Great people, Great countries, and an Amazing Solar Eclipse Chase. For the Eclipse itself we divided the group in teams of 2 persons per rented car, and we all went to different places at the North of Iceland to maximize the chance that some of us could really see it, due to the weather conditions.

In year 2005 I saw a Hybrid Solar Eclipse in the annular phase in Panama. I recall that the annularity lasted only around 10 seconds, and I was able to take pictures and video tape it. We were at the Penonomé Airport of Panama.

The next one was in 2006 in Libya. That was my very first expedition to see a Total Solar Eclipse, and it was a great tour! It looks like we were the first tourist cruise to dock at Tobruk, Libya. The people of Libya were very, very, very nice at us. The day of the Eclipse we went by busses driving in the middle of the Libyan dessert. The weather was great, and I was able to experience a great Total Eclipse.

After that, in year 2008, we went to see the Total Solar Eclipse in Russia. We were in a River Cruise from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, and then we flew into Novosibirsk, Siberia. The day of the Eclipse we departed by bus to a place next to a river where we also had a great view of the Eclipse.

In year 2009 we went to China for another Total Solar Eclipse. The tour was great and we were able to visit nice cities of China. Unfortunately, the weather was very bad and this was the first time I was unable to see the Eclipse. Nevertheless, we were in the path of totality and we were able to experience the eclipse itself.

Finally, just some weeks ago, we saw the Total Solar Eclipse in the Hao Atoll, French Polynesia. The people from Hao were amazingly great and friendly. They were taking a look through my telescope and were very grateful for having this chance. I felt myself honored and happy for being able to share my equipment with them.

What are the main factors to consider when traveling abroad for eclipse chasing?

Portability, Portability and Portability. I mean, there are other important things as well, but Portability is in my eyes the most important one. You need to think that you will be traveling in airplanes, boats, cars, busses, etc. You just can’t take as many things as you would like to. You also need to remember that, during the Eclipse, you are going to be in many cases in the middle of nowhere, so if you forgot a screw or some batteries, and you only have 2 hours for Totality to begin, then you won’t be able to have your equipment working. Therefore, I have a checklist for all my trips. I strongly recommend having a checklist and making complete simulations with all your equipment at home well before the departure date. Most of the other topics are similar to any other trip, such as visas.

Tell us about your most recent eclipse experience just a few days ago, the more details the better!

We flew from Mexico to Los Angeles and stayed there for three days. Then, on Tuesday July 6 we joined the core tour and flew to Papeete, Tahiti. We spent 4 great days in Tahiti, and we went to see most of the highlights, included the place where James Cook went to see the Transit of Venus in 1769. The night prior to the eclipse day was very short. We woke up at 1:30am and left the hotel at 2:15 or so. Our tour company had different destinations for the Eclipse. A part of the group flew to the Hikueru Atoll. Another part of the group went in a cruise to Aranaui, and we flew to the Hao Atoll. The flight departing from Papeete to Hao left at 3:45am and landed at around 6:00am. We were allowed to see the Eclipse from the Airport Parking Lot. Since first contact was at 7:24am, we had enough time to set up all the equipment properly. We got some clouds during the partial phases of the Eclipse, but there were no clouds at all covering the moon during totality, so we had a great view.

Unfortunately the guys that went to the Hikueru Atoll got clouded during totality, so we were lucky. Some minutes before fourth contact we were asked to pack our equipment in order to book it at the airport. We flew back to Tahiti at around 11am with a big smile!

Could you please describe your current equipment setup? 

I use three cameras and two tripods. In one tripod I have a Nikon D70s with a 28-200mm lens. I use that camera with the lens at around 30mm and with an Intervalometer to take pictures every 5 minutes. That makes a very nice picture of all the eclipse sequence. The other tripod is the complicated one. I will describe it bottom up. I have a Manfrotto Tripod. On top of it I place a Manfrotto 410 head. On top of the head I place an Astrotrac, which is a very lightweight device that can track the sun for up to 2 hours. Then, on top of the Astrotrac goes a Manfrotto 486 head that supports an Aluminum bar which holds two cameras. One of them is a Sony Handycam video camera with a 3X lens, and the other one is a Nikon D90 which uses a Stellarvue Raptor 70ED as lens. The Nikon D90 is controlled via the USB port by a computer using Eclipse Orchestrator, and the Astrotrac is powered by a Minigorilla Battery.

What are the guidelines you use to consider such a setup?

This setup provides me a very good mixture of Portability, Quality and automatization. I am able to take good pictures of the Eclipse, take a video, capture the complete sequence, and it is almost hands off. Of course you need to review now and then that the cameras are still tracking the sun. The cons of this setup is that the software is controlling the camera, so if you want to take pictures with different exposure times you just need to program that beforehand. During the eclipse you just need to hope that the exposures you chose before are the correct ones including the possible cloudiness.

Regarding the solar eclipse photography you do, could you please share some tips and experiences with us?

The most important tip would be to practice a lot. I measure how much time it takes me to have all my setup ready, and I go over and over through my checklist. Then I time myself again while disassembling all the setup and packing properly. This lets me know exactly how much time I will need in the Eclipse Day. Since in most of the cases you won’t know how the weather will be during the Eclipse, you need to be able to bracket a lot the exposures in your camera during the Eclipse. The software I use allows me to take a lot of pictures with different exposure times. Another very important topic is the focus. The big difference between a nice picture and a great picture is most of the times the focus. In my setup you can use the Nikon D90’s live view option with a zoom to adjust your focus as good as possible. If there are sun spots, you can focus using them. If there are none, then you can focus during the partial phases as good as possible by checking the edges of the sun while being covered by the moon.

What are the “do’s” and “dont’s” you consider for your eclipse chasing activity?

If you are going for a first Eclipse, don’t take pictures at it. You will just be frustrated with your camera and not being able to really see it and enjoy it. There will always be people taking pictures that can share with you. If you are going on further chases and want to take pictures, practice a lot. Remember that during totality, as a friend once told me, people get stupid. It has happened to all of us. I forgot to take out a filter of a camera during totality in the Solar Eclipse of Libya, so I got no pictures in one camera. Do review your equipment and go through your checklist, and make sure you have all the items properly packed. Remember that you will need to bring in your carry on all the sensitive equipment, such as Cameras and Telescope. If, for any given reason, you realize that something is broken or missing at the eclipse site, don’t waste your time trying to run for something in the last minutes. Relax and enjoy the show. Your friends will share the pictures with you and you will be happy you enjoyed the Eclipse.

How do you plan your trips? What information do you consider essential for a good planing?

There is a lot of information in the Internet. I normally check Nasa’s web site where all the dates for future eclipses are clearly stated. I also check web sites where I can see via Google Maps the exact location of the eclipse path. Based on that, I decide which place in the world to visit and finally I look for travel agencies going to that place. In all of my current chases I have been going with groups specifically for the Solar Eclipse. I might conduce some trip with people from Mexico in the future, which will be a great experience.

What do you do about the weather?

Weather is always a hot topic, and I forgot to mention that in my previous point. There is a guy called Jay Anderson, which I call the Solar Eclipse Weather Guru. He publishes the average cloudiness and weather prospects for the eclipse path, and based on that information I choose the best location as possible.

Could you please share some odd or funny issues you have experienced while eclipse chasing?

I can’t recall any funny issues, but there are some ones about the unexpected friendliness of people in different cultures. In Tobruk, Libya we were advised that the women should be covering their heads. My wife purchased a head scarf to cover her head, but of course she had no idea on how to properly wear it. It kept falling down, and the people in Libya told her with happy faces and smiles that it was ok, there was no need to cover the head. Then we went into a small grocery store and I wanted to purchase a 1 kilo bag of coffee. When I tried to pay in dollars the sales man told me they didn’t accept dollars, and asked me where I was coming from. I told him I was from Mexico and he told me to take the coffee for free as a gift for us to remember them. In the last trip to Hao a lot of people working at the airport were looking the sun through my Telescope/cameras very happy. At some moment in time, a guy from there gave me as a gift a collar, and he even wanted to pay me for letting him see through my Telescope. Of course I didn’t accept any money at all. That was a great experience to see how gratefull the people were just for being able to see through the Telescope. Those are some of the nicest things about chasing eclipses. You get to know people from different cultures.

Could you please share some web resources where people can get involved as well as grow their interest on this subject?

Sure! There are lots of them, but I will point out the ones I regularly check. Nasa’s web site:
Weather across the eclipse path:
Eclipse Google Maps:

I have such links and many others in my web site, which is You will find there also links to the different eclipse tour companies I have used over the years.

Who are the maximum exponents of eclipse chasing world-wide and how do you measure your work with them?

It is difficult to point at a few people only. In my opinion the maximum exponent of Solar Eclipses is Fred Espenak. He works at NASA and he publishes the eclipse bulletins for NASA. Jay Anderson works with him in such bulletins publishing information on the weather. I haven’t had the honor to meet them in any chase yet, but I hope to meet them someday. In one of the cases I was there with Rick Fienberg who was Sky and Telescope’s editor at that moment. In another trip I was with David Eicher, who is the editor of the Astronomy Magazine. Talking about my work, overall I think that I have made interesting pictures and videos. There is still some fine tuning missing, but I am sure that in the next eclipse in Austalia I will take pictures at the level of some of the best solar eclipse chasers.

What are your future plans?

The next chases will happen in year 2012, since in next year there are no total or annular solar eclipses. In May 20 there will be an annular eclipse and I plan to conduct a trip with some Mexican Amateur Astronomers to the US. That will be a very interesting experience! Then, in November 2012 I will be traveling to Australia to see the Total Solar Eclipse. I am already looking forward to return to the Faroe Islands for the 2015 Total Solar Eclipse.

If there is something you could wish for in this arena to improve your experience and studies, what could it possibly be?

It would be great to have an easier way to focus faster. The Nikon D90 has Live View, and for the next eclipse I plan to use the Live View to see the image in a laptop, and therefore being able to have a better focus. I might also be changing my current Telescope for a Takahashi as my christmas gift. It would also be great to find a software that could help to to easier and faster process my raw images.

Any final advise you would give our audience to jump into the band wagon?

As stated prior in this conversation, no matter how good are the pictures you have seen of a Solar Eclipse, they are nothing compared with the reall stuff. You need to see that and experience it. Give yourself a gift and plan to see an eclipse in the next years. You still have 2 years before the next Total Eclipse, but time goes fast and tours book very much in advance. I am sure that if you go to see one Eclipse, you won’t regret it. And, if anyone goes to see a Solar Eclipse, please share your experiences with other ones.

Thank you Ruben for joining us on this podcast.

End of podcast:

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