Explorer braves the Arctic for perfect shot of solar eclipse

From the gardens and castles of the Czech Republic, to the icebergs and freezing temperatures of the Svalbard archipelago, Dr. Minoslav Druckmüller travelled far from home to photograph a rare celestial event.


His efforts paid off.

Druckmüller and the international Solar Wind Sherpas Team captured a beautiful and rare photo of the sun’s corona during the March 20 total solar eclipse.

“The eclipse was more than my wildest dreams,” Druckmüller said. “The probability of even seeing the eclipse was only about 30 per cent… because the weather on that part of the earth is very bad.”

The project, led by the University of Manoa Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii, took four long years of planning. “We needed the best place, the best team and the best equipment so it was a lot of work,” Druckmüller said.

Using a cargo ship, the scientists transported 500 kilograms of equipment to Longyearbyen - Svalbard’s main town on the island of Spitsbergen.

The team then split off into two different locations, in hopes that this would increase their chances to see the eclipse. Druckmüller and his colleagues set up imaging equipment at an old Northern Light Observatory, while another group worked from an airport hanger 16 kilometres away.  

The Svalbard archipelago has microclimates, so the weather is constantly changing. It could be dry and snowy in one place, but humid and sunny just a few kilometres away, Druckmüller said.

“The weather was a bit foggy at the airport, but otherwise both conditions were excellent,” Druckmüller said.

This image is a composition of 29 eclipse images, acquired by means of 800 mm lens and Nikon D810 camera. Minoslav Druckmüller, Shaddia Habbal, Peter Aniol, Pavel Štarha

The total eclipse lasted two minutes and 20 seconds, when the sun reached an altitude of 11 degrees. Druckmüller’s main responsibility occurred after the eclipse, when he combined images from the observatory and the airport to compose the final photos.

The observations and photographs, he said, were completely automatic.

The team set up all the equipment and hardware beforehand, and turned everything on about two minutes before the eclipse began, he said. The computers did the rest.

“We were really well prepared,” he said. “There is a lot of pressure… if you press the wrong key on the keyboard, or input the incorrect wire, you may completely destroy the work of the team. And you don’t exactly get to go back and do it again.”

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and the moon partly obscures the sun. When the moon’s apparent size is big enough to fully block the sun, and turn daytime into temporary darkness, then a total eclipse has occurred.

The sky was crystal clear before, during and after the eclipse, Druckmüller said. This provided an inconceivable photography opportunity above the white, snow-covered Arctic landscape.

“We were so lucky,” Druckmüller said. “It was the best eclipse because it was the first time I got to see it with my own eyes… for once I wasn’t stuck controlling the equipment.”

The next total solar eclipse won’t be visible from Europe until 2026. But Druckmüller is already planning to go.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” he said.