Red moon risen

Eclipse montage WM.jpg

It's not often that I'm standing in a field in the middle of the night in Co Antrim, sending tweets, and getting replies come in all from Houston, Texas. But then, it's not every night that the sky is dominated by the stunning sight of a blood red moon, the result of a total lunar eclipse. Nor is it every night that the skies above Northern Ireland are cleared than many of the skies in North America. And it's not every night that folks across the pond are depending on Irish folk for live updates of this celestial event!

But in the few days leading up to eclipse night, it was anything but certain that we would see anything at all. Although we were enjoying high pressure over the British Isles, anticyclones do not by any means bring guaranteed wall to wall sunshine. If the conditions are right for it, a temperature inversion can form, leading to a stubborn layer of a cap cloud just hanging around for days. No rain - but no views of the skies above either. And the forecast going into the weekend was for exactly those conditions.

But, when you live in Northern Ireland, you have to be the eternal optimist when it comes to the weather. And indeed, earlier this year for the solar eclipse, despite a bad forecast of thick cloud, I'd managed to capture that. So I remained ever hopeful as we came towards Sunday.

And indeed that optimism paid off. Throughout the day and late into the early autumn evening, the skies remained clear. 

The problem of haze

But we were faced with another high pressure phenomenon that can often spoil astro photography - haze. As wind speeds are very light, there is very little mixing of the air, allowing humidity levels to climb and for haze to dominate the skies. In fact, the great aurora hunt of September 2014 - when thousands flocked to the north coast in expectation - was a wash out for that very reason.

And when the moon rose on 27th around 20.00, it rose through a thick haze along the horizon. It looked moody and beautiful through the mist - but would that scupper our chances of getting clear and sharp shots? I did a test shot to find out - and thankfully, despite the murk, the bright perigee moon shone through brightly!

I posted this image on my Facebook page. The interest was amazing - message were coming in from all over the world. Clearly the people of our planet were full of anticipation and excitement. And I was full of the buzz of being part of this global phenomenon, interacting with folks from Europe and North America through Twitter and Facebook as the evening progressed. 

Would it stay clear enough though? At this stage, it was pretty obvious that cloud wasn't going to be an issue for us. But what about that mist? Would it thicken into fog? Again, we could only hope, and trust that the luck of the Irish would be on our side!

Still buzzing with excitement, I went to bed early and set the alarm for 02.00. Thankfully, I quickly drifted off into a deep sleep...

Waking up

02.00 hours came and, just before my alarm went off, I was woken by a particularly vivid dream about a particularly vivid aurora - clearly my mind was still buzzing with all things celestial in my sleep. 

I looked outside at the nigh skies. Indeed, there were no clouds. And, thankfully, the mist had not developed any further than it had when I went to bed. And there she was, hanging high and majestic in the clear skies above - our moon, at its closest point to us, with a big chunk of darkness eaten out of its side. The shadow of our planet was already beginning to pass over our moon.

I did a quick test shot and was delighted to discover the moon was still cutting through the haze. Off I went to pick up my photographer buddy Peter and the two of us headed just outside of town to get away from the light pollution.

We pulled into a lay-by beside a field and got into position, setting up for a vigil that would last nearly four hours in the wee small hours of the night.

The moon gets gobbled up

The moon was incredibly bright, even with an increasing chunk of darkness being bitten out of it. The landscape around us was bathed in that wonderful moody silvery moon light and the moon-light shadows were being cast all around us. You could see only the brightest of stars in the sky blazing with reflected light.

Peter and I shot away, enjoying the spectacle above us. Every so often I would take my memory card out and do a quick process of a shot or two on the laptop, before sharing it online. This was a global event, played out in real time, and I wanted to be able to live tweet as much as possible!

Gradually, over the next 40 minutes or so, more and more of the moon was covered. Totality was coming ever closer. 

Totality begins

Eventually, the last sliver of silver was gobbled up by the vast shadow of the earth, totality began - and the red moon was birthed.

By this stage, the only light reaching our satellite was sunlight that was being refracted through our atmosphere. During the refraction, only the red wave lengths were directed towards the moon (a similar process happens at sunset to give us the red skies then). So not only was it red, but my goodness was it dark. This bright orb that had been casting shadows around us just half an hour before was not reduced to a dark, brooding red circle. The landscape was plunged into darkness and the field around us all but disappeared from view. And in the now darkened skies above us, all the stars came out to play, celestial mice dancing across the heavens while the celestial cat slept before them. The swathe of the Milky Way revealed itself in all its glory overhead. And, when I zoomed in close to the moon, I could make out the stars all around it - stars you wouldn't normally be able to photograph due to the brightness of the moon.

For the next 40 minutes, we watched and snapped, awestruck by the sight above us. It was easy to see, we speculated, why the ancients would have seen this as a portent of doom. The moon gobbled up before your very eyes. The orb turning the colour of blood. The land plunged into darkness. 

For us, of course, it was simply an astronomical event - but in another sense there was no 'simply' about it. It was a majestic and beautiful sight that was a sheer delight to witness, even given the lateness of the hour.

All the while, the tweets kept on being exchanged, and it became apparent that us folks in Nothern Ireland were being treated to one of the clearest views of the event. Cloudy in France, said one of my Facebook followers. Overcast in New Jersey, said a Twitter follower. Can't see the sky in Toronto, said another. And thanks for sharing your pics, said them all! He were were, two blokes by a field in the middle of the night in Co Antrim, helping share this event with the world!

Lunar traffic light

Gradually, the slice of slightly brighter red made its way from the bottom right to the bottom left of the moon. Eventally that sliver of silver reappeared, this time on the other side of the moon, as the earth's shadow began to move away. The proceedings from the earlier part of the morning were played out in reverse. The moon got brighter, the Milky Way disappeared, the celestial mice ran for cover as the celestial cat awoke. It was time for bed, time to catch a few more hours sleep before work the next day.

Well, almost. There was time for a quick processing of some shots to produce a lunar eclipse traffic light image!

It's not often that I find myself standing by a field in Co Antrim, tweeting to the world. In fact, the next time I'll get the chance even to hope to photograph a perigee moon in total eclipse won't be till 2023. But I'm glad I was able to share this one and that little Northern Ireland was able to deliver for all sorts of places across our planet, as we plunged our satellite into the shadows!

Belfast Telegraph Interview

The next day, I was thrilled to be contacted by the Belfast Telegraph, Northern Ireland's leading daily national newspaper, to be interviewed about my experiences photographing the eclipse. You can read the interview here.


Read about my experiences photographing the solar eclipse here