The Exploratorium’s Eclipse Expeditions
Since 1998, the Exploratorium and NASA have worked together to send expeditions to sites around the world to broadcast stunning images of eclipses.
Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer believed that “the world is an understandable place,” and that people should be able to experience its amazing phenomena whenever possible.
Total eclipses are one of those amazing experiences. Though a total solar eclipse is visible from somewhere on Earth every 18 months, the average place on the globe only sees one once every 375 years.They’re a once-in-a-lifetime event for most people, if they’re lucky.
That’s why for the past 25 years the Exploratorium, in tandem with NASA, has sent expeditions around the world to webcast total solar eclipses live as they happen.
Exploratorium eclipse team members describe what it’s like to witness a total solar eclipse in person.
“I’ve been to six eclipses and they’re really powerful events, but not everyone gets a chance to see one in person,” says Exploratorium Chief Learning Officer Rob Semper. “That’s why we make such a big effort to get people to experience them virtually and get a taste of what they’re like in person.”
In the late 1990s the Exploratorium was the first museum to extensively use the then-new technology of webcasting to share events with people who might never visit the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The museum was also the first to webcast live images directly from a telescope—an innovation jump-started by local video engineer and astronomy buff Larry Kenworthy.
Armed with telescopes, teaching aids, video cameras, and transmission equipment, over the years the Exploratorium has livecast total solar eclipses from as close as the US and as far away as a tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, sharing awe-inspiring images with millions of people worldwide.
Come along with us and check out some of the Exploratorium’s eclipse expeditions.
In 1998, the Exploratorium launches its first eclipse webcast expedition, partnering with the Discovery Channel and making its first connections with NASA. At this time, no one has ever webcast an eclipse live before. To catch the one on February 26, 1998, the crew travels to Aruba, a small Caribbean island right in the path of totality, or the path of the moon’s shadow across the Earth.
Meanwhile, on eclipse day in San Francisco, hundreds of people come to the Exploratorium to view the event on a big screen. As the webcast begins, there’s a lucky accident: a downlink video engineer happens to see the Exploratorium’s satellite feed. He alerts CNN headquarters, and the network rushes to get permission to broadcast the Exploratorium’s images across the world. By the time it’s all over, the livecast will also be featured on Discovery, MSNBC, CBS, and ABC.
The audience in the Phyllis C. Wattis Webcast Studio at the Exploratorium on eclipse day 1998. The studio’s first use was to produce the Aruba eclipse webcast event for a public audience.
Amasya, Turkey, 1999
After the success of the 1998 webcast, the Exploratorium embarks on the first of many partnerships with NASA. The destination: Amasya, a town in the highlands of north-central Turkey. Although the weather cooperates, the technology doesn’t: the day before the eclipse, the main generator suddenly quits, endangering the whole project! Luckily, a quick-thinking engineer is able to tap into power from a nearby streetlight, and production goes on as scheduled.
Back in San Francisco, the Exploratorium hosts an all-night slumber party (the eclipse is at 4:00 a.m. local time) by the Phyllis C. Wattis Webcast Studio on the museum floor. More than 3,000 people show up with pillows and in pajamas—the Exploratorium’s largest crowd ever! As excitement builds toward totality (when the moon completely covers the Sun) the crowd erupts into cheers and tears, confirming that even over the web, extraordinary events can elicit wonder, awe, and scientific curiosity. The local event also includes a live link with a science museum in Beijing, China. Visitors at both locations view the broadcast simultaneously, and share their thoughts and questions with each other.
Eclipse webcast producer Zane Vella broadcasts live with the solar video telescope in Amasya, Turkey.
In 2001, the Exploratorium launches its longest journey yet, from San Francisco to the southern African country of Zambia. Arriving in Lower Zambezi National Park, the crew is hosted by the staff of a safari lodge known as Sausage Tree Camp, so called because of the huge (up to two feet long!) sausage-shaped fruit of the Kigelia africana tree. Wild animals roam freely throughout the national park, and armed guards accompany crew when they leave the confines of the production site. Exploratorium scientist Paul Doherty takes time to teach local students about the science of the upcoming eclipse, and the crew hands out dozens of solar viewing glasses. On eclipse day, the weather is perfect, the technology cooperates, and at totality the view of the Sun’s corona, or outermost atmosphere, is one of the most robust and beautiful seen on any of the expeditions so far.
Exploratorium senior scientist Paul Doherty discussing with camp staff what to expect to see during the eclipse.
Side, Turkey, 2006
The 2006 total eclipse sweeps north from Antarctica through western Africa and into Turkey. The Exploratorium heads to Side (pronounced “see-day”), an ancient Turkish city near the Mediterranean coast. Meteorologists predict Side has the best chance of clear viewing conditions. The crew sets up in a spectacular site: the ruins of a 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater that’s still in use to this day. For this eclipse, the Exploratorium deploys four telescopes: two with white light filters, one with a calcium-K filter (which sees the Sun in near-ultraviolet light), and one with an H-alpha filter (which focuses on a narrow part of the Sun’s electromagnetic spectrum). But the whole production is endangered when a power source for the telescopes suddenly fails. An engineer saves the day when he borrows the battery from a rental car and wires it up in time to power the scopes.
On eclipse day, hundreds of students fill the ancient amphitheater—armed with safe-viewing spectacles—to watch the eclipse and the Exploratorium live webcast. As part of the Exploratorium’s continuing partnership with NASA, the livestream is simulcast on NASA TV and NASA.gov for the first time, bringing millions of new viewers to the program. The program is also screened at public venues around the world, including at the Greenwich Observatory in England, the Sydney Observatory in Australia, and the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.
Telescope technician Bill Dean works on the telescope array moments before the start of the livecast.
The Exploratorium eclipse chasers journey to remote Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in northwestern China. On the edge of the Gobi Desert, it’s a region where Western video crews are rarely allowed. But for this event, authorities welcome not only the Exploratorium but eclipse seekers from China and around the world. The Exploratorium partners with the local XJTV station, which provides production support in exchange for use of the telescope feeds, allowing millions of people in China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to see the eclipse live. Responding to requests from museums and news agencies, the Exploratorium also presents a second feed of raw live video from the telescopes, allowing other organizations to use those images to create their own content.
The biggest challenge in the high desert? The temperature: afternoon highs hit 115 degrees Fahrenheit, causing dehydration and other heat-related illnesses. And there are technical gremlins again: a key video mixer responsible for sending out the telescope feeds wilts in the heat. Luckily, the XJTV crew includes a team member trained in camera repair. He whips out his soldering iron and replaces the fried resistor on site. On eclipse day, the clear weather suddenly gives way to rare clouds, which intermittently block crucial views of the Sun. But miraculously—thanks in part to the cooler temperatures that occur at totality—the clouds clear just in time for spectacular views of the eclipse.
The crew for Total Solar Eclipse: Live from China on location in the Gobi Desert.
Woleai, Micronesia, 2016
Imagine planning a trip with your family to a tiny island in the tropical Pacific Ocean, and then adding in 6,000 pounds of specialized equipment, fragile telescopes, and electronics to your luggage! That’s what the Exploratorium does in 2016, when a crew of 15 journeys to the island of Woleai, part of the Federated States of Micronesia. The crew braves rough seas, 90-degree temperatures, and threatening clouds to broadcast the event.
The eclipse is spectacular: totality lasts four minutes and three seconds, an eternity in eclipse terms. The majority of the residents on the island have never seen an eclipse before, though some elders recall seeing one when they were young. After teaching local schoolkids the science behind the eclipse, the Exploratorium hands out hundreds of pairs of safety viewing glasses. The whole village—and more than four million viewers around the world—see the eclipse as it happens. In return, the Woleaians host a festival for the crew, with food, dancing, and a demonstration of the islanders’ impressive navigation skills: boys as young as seven are able to name all the constellations in the night sky.
The Exploratorium’s Robyn Higdon shows kids on Woleai how to safely view the Sun using eclipse glasses.
The Great American Eclipse, 2017
The Exploratorium eclipse chasers stay stateside for the Great American Eclipse in August 2017. The path of totality stretches across most of the continental US, from Lincoln Beach, Oregon, all the way to Charleston, South Carolina. Attempting to double the chance of clear viewing conditions, the crew sets up shop in two locations: outside an aviation museum in Madras, Oregon, and in Casper, Wyoming. In addition to two telescope-only feeds made available to museums, libraries, and news agencies, plus a one-hour educational program, the Exploratorium produces a one-hour program entirely in Spanish.
The crew balloons to 56 members, who deal with surprisingly windy conditions. On both sites, cameras are knocked over, tents are blown away, and eclipse props are scattered. Despite the challenges, the skies are clear and the shows go smoothly. The Exploratorium’s hour-long educational program filled with eclipse science tips, fantastic views of the eclipse, and interviews from the scene is a hit. The telescope feeds are viewed by more than 40 million people around the world. (According to the University of Michigan, 2017 was the most-viewed eclipse ever in the US, with more than 215 million Americans witnessing the event live or digitally.) For the first time, the Exploratorium also launches a mobile app (the Total Solar Eclipse App) that allows people to easily watch the eclipse on their devices.
Exploratorium crew members take a break to check out the eclipse.
Just two years after the Great American Eclipse, the Exploratorium and NASA teams are on the move again, this time heading to the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in the mountains of Chile. Over 1.4 million people watch the English- and Spanish-language webcasts via feeds on the Exploratorium and NASA websites. A raw feed of the view from the museum’s telescopes is livestreamed on the YouTube channels of media networks like CBS News, NBC, PBS NewsHour, and Bloomberg.
Exploratorium crew setting up for the eclipse broadcast at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.
Next Up: The Annular Solar Eclipse, October 14, 2023
The Exploratorium is gearing up for the 2024 total solar eclipse by producing a livestream of the annular solar eclipse on October 14, 2023. (Annular eclipses aren’t as spectacular as total eclipses because the moon doesn’t completely cover the Sun’s disk and you can’t see the solar corona.) With its main production site located at Valley of the Gods in southeastern Utah, the Exploratorium team is working with the Indigenous Education Institute to bring forward the stories of the Navajo, whose traditional lands include the broadcast location. Because October weather can be cloudy, the team has also chosen a second site at the Nevada Northern Railroad Museum in Ely, Nevada.
Next Up: The Total Solar Eclipse, April 8, 2024
When the next big total solar eclipse darkens skies over the US in 2024, the Exploratorium will have an expedition on the scene to bring the experience live to audiences all around the world—just as it has done since 1998. With production sites planned in Torreón, Mexico, and Junction, Texas, there’s a promising chance of clear skies.