In the middle of a serene night, young astronomers from USC College lay on their backs on a grassy peak in the San Gabriel Mountains staring at the full moon.
The students and their professor Edward Rhodes watched the moon slowly go from alabaster-white to ash-gray to a fiery red-orange.
Nearby, inside a small dome next to the Mount Wilson Observatory’s 60-foot tower, other students watched the total lunar eclipse unfold on computer screens beneath a 16-inch telescope. As senior Richard Dyer noted, “The weather was perfect. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.”
Christine Jilly, a 22-year-old astronomy major, was also among the 19 undergraduates who participated in the Aug. 28 eclipse excursion.
“It looked like some weird scene in a science fiction movie,” Jilly said of the blood-red orb. “The moon looked kind of eerie but very cool.”
Rhodes, professor of astronomy, has collected data for solar physics research at the 60-foot tower since 1984. He spent months finding funds and arranging the recent field trip for his Astronomy 400 class.
Mount Wilson Observatory Association volunteers Matthew Ota and Tom Meneghini helped Rhodes attach his Canon cameras to the observatory’s 16-inch Meade LX-200 telescope.
The team took digital and film images of the eclipse and created a movie, condensing the two-and-a-half-hour sequence of the moon passing through the Earth’s shadow into a 70-second clip. They stayed until after 5 a.m. to get the awe-inspiring images.
Rhodes will use the movie as a teaching tool in this and other astronomy classes when explaining lunar eclipses.
“This will become a permanent part of my course material,” Rhodes said, referring to the QuickTime movie he was viewing on his laptop. “Before this, there were only static drawings, artistic sketches or animation simulations to show students during lessons on lunar eclipses. Now we have the real thing.”
After 29 years as a USC astronomer, Rhodes still has the enthusiasm of a young apprentice watching a total lunar eclipse for the first time.
In the lab of his campus office, packed with science project display boards and photos of some of his past students, he explained with exuberance how such a phenomenon occurs only when the sun, Earth and moon are perfectly aligned.
The moon must be full. When the moon moves through the darkest portion of the Earth’s shadow, called the umbra, a total eclipse takes place. The refraction of sunlight in the Earth’s atmosphere, Rhodes said, causes the moon to turn crimson.
“The sunlight reaching the moon passes through a dense layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, where the light is refracted,” said Rhodes, sporting a white goatee and a tie depicting each planet of the solar system. “It’s similar to the reason for the color of a sunrise and a sunset.”
Rhodes wanted his students to experience the celestial spectacle up close and in person. He arranged for a van to carry his students to an ideal location, Mount Wilson Observatory, where USC astronomers have operated the 60-foot solar tower telescope there since 1987.
Rhodes, a pioneer in the field of helioseismology — the study of the sun’s internal structure — is collecting data about sunspots during a complete 22-year solar cycle. Understanding these complex solar oscillation patterns will someday enable scientists to predict where and when sunspots occur and how that affects the Earth’s climate.
Although his main bailiwick is all things solar (he’s a co-investigator on NASA’s Solar Oscillation Investigation), Rhodes’ expertise covers the gamut of celestial objects and phenomena from stellar evolution to total moon eclipses. He jumped at the chance to show his students the August eclipse — the first total lunar eclipse visible to North Americans in three years.
His students also jumped at the chance. Although the field trip ended around 3:30 a.m. (Rhodes stayed later), every student in the class attended.
“It’s one of the most engaging off-campus learning experiences a student could have,” Rhodes said of the 36-mile jaunt to Mount Wilson. “It will be one that our students will long remember.”
Days after the trip, his students were still talking about it.
“To be able to witness firsthand all of the things that we studied in class was pretty amazing,” said 22-year-old senior Allie Anderson. “I enjoyed seeing some of the really high-tech equipment they used to track the eclipse. And I was most surprised to find an area near Los Angeles where you could actually see so many stars.”
Juan Lora, a 20-year-old junior and astronomy major, said the trip made him better appreciate not only the science of an eclipse but also its beauty.
“The experience of witnessing the lunar eclipse from an observatory and actually spending the time to watch the whole thing happen reinforced my position on astronomy,” Lora said. “This is something I really want to do.”
Next semester, Rhodes plans to take his Astronomy 100 class to Mount Wilson to watch the Feb. 20 total lunar eclipse. That one begins at around sunset.
Rhodes is determined to instill in each of his astronomy students a sense of admiration for the cosmos. He hopes his own enthusiasm rubs off.
“After all these years, I still find both majesty and mystery in the universe,” Rhodes said. “Every time I look at the sky, I want to share that sense of awe with my students.”