Clouds, veering cabbies, and old optics didn’t deter committed spectators of this last-chance astronomical event.
Many of us had to throw up our hands yesterday when it came to viewing the transit of Venus. Opaque skies here in the Boston area disappointed skygazers, even those of us stubborn enough to regularly walk outside with eclipse glasses just in case of a cloud break.
But others had more luck — although not without a fair amount of flurry. S&T editors Monica Young, Sean Walker, Dennis di Cicco, Robert Naeye, and Kelly Beatty were placed around the country (and outside it) to watch Venus pass one “final” time in front of the Sun. Reports are still coming in, so check back later for updates, but here’s a taste of the fun.
An Unexpected Break
by Sean Walker
Things didn’t start well in Manchester, New Hampshire. My 12-year-old daughter and I set up in Derry Field Park, but we only snatched brief views of the transit ingress between clouds. We soon gave up and headed home.
But after dinner I poked my head back outside, and holy cow! the sky was clear. I grabbed my equipment and ran back up the hill. The clouds parted for a good half hour or so, giving me enough time to capture this mosaic of the Sun during the final transit of the 21st century.
Speeding Toward Transit in California
by Monica Young
I missed the transit’s ingress while training to make a better website. At 4:30 p.m. (PDT), I hustled out of class and hailed a cab to the California Academy of Sciences. I knew they were planning on showing the transit from the building’s “living roof,” a mockup of grassy hills covered in native California plants. Maybe the cab driver sensed my agitation, because he drove like a crazy man, squeezing past several yellow lights.
There were still people on top of the Academy’s roof when I arrived, but it was 4:55 p.m. and the building was already closing for the day. I pulled out my last pair of eclipse glasses and joined the group of people on the front steps, some of them peeking through their own shades. I had never used solar shades before, and I was surprised at how small the Sun is in the sky: its glare makes it seem so much bigger. Unfortunately, my eyesight isn’t very good, and while I thought I could see where Venus ought to be, I couldn’t really make out the dark disk.
Disappointed, I headed back to my hotel. I hopped on the BART light-rail train and was enjoying the scenery — the little shops with art deco design flairs, the towering trees and desert-like plants so different from Boston’s flora — when we passed a park. In the middle huddled a cluster of telescopes.
The train just kept on going. I jumped from my seat and leaped off at the next stop. A small crowd had gathered, taking turns looking through the scopes. The wind was blowing something fierce, and my first view through binoculars only got me a shaky glimpse of the transit. My view through the other two telescopes was better. Venus hovered against the Sun’s glowing disk, its pitch-black disk seemingly frozen in place, surrounded by several dark-grey sunspots that dotted the Sun’s southern hemisphere.
When I went to thank the telescope’s owner, lo and behold he was none other than Tim Benedictus, creator of the Sky Safari app and collaborator on Sky & Telescope’s SkyWeek app, whom I had only met through teleconferences. Talk about fortuitous.
After taking a view through each telescope, I headed home again. I was smiling as I boarded the light-rail train again, having finally seen an event that I knew I would never see again.
Success in Hawaii
by Robert Naeye
The transit from here was spectacular. We had excellent views of 1st and 2nd contact from the Keck Visitors' Center at 9,300 feet on Mauna Kea, and the skies stayed clear for several hours. Many dozens of scopes of all types and sizes clustered on the site.
We knew the Sun would dive below a mountain ridge for 3rd and 4th contact, so most of our tour group went back down the volcano to our hotel at Waikoloa. But we didn’t miss the end: from the beach there we had excellent views of 3rd and 4th contact, with the Sun just a few degrees above the ocean. The seeing was bad at the very end since the Sun was so low.
One thing we all noticed was that the transit lasted longer in H-alpha scopes (like my Coronado Personal Solar Telescope) than it did in scopes using white-light filters, starting about 1-2 minutes earlier and ending 1-2 minutes later. That's because the H-alpha folks weren’t looking at the solar “surface” (the photosphere) but at the chromosphere, which is one level higher in the solar atmosphere.
I also noticed some sunburns where the sunscreen hadn't quite reached, but they were worth it.
In the Footsteps of Captain Cook
by J. Kelly Beatty
Having settled for a just quick peek of the 2004 transit (darn those clouds!), I decided to go all out for the 2012 event. So I headed for Tahiti and, specifically, Pointé Venus, where 243 years ago Capt. James Cook and his crew viewed the transit of 1769.
The weather had been rainy and threatening up through the night before the transit. So the blue skies of Tuesday morning were a welcome sight. Our small group headed by bus to the black-sand spit that juts into Matavai Bay on the island's north shore. Today nothing remains of Cook's original encampment, but local organizers spent three months reconstructing the fortified observing compound that Cook and his crew erected after arriving two months ahead of time.
This time around the only fortification needed was a stout clothesline. Several thousand residents showed up to enjoy a day of spectacle — speeches by dignitaries (of course), dance troupes, historic reenactments, and lots of local color.
More than 500 schoolchildren roamed the grounds in bunches, and my little telescope (a 4½-inch Orion StarBlast tube on an iOptron Cube mount) remained very, very popular throughout the day. I must have shown Venus's stark black silhouette on the Sun to upward of 1,000 people yesterday.
The skies were mostly clear, though a cloud band moved in just in late afternoon to spoil the expected view of the Sun and its temporary tâche noire (a handy phrase, I soon learned). We reveled in Venus's slow, stately entry onto the Sun. Its large, razor-sharp circle contrasted dramatically with the smaller, softer-edged sunspots scattered across the solar disk.
Usually I discourage parents from hoisting their 1-, 2-, and 3-year-olds up to the eyepiece for a quick peek. But I couldn't say "no" this time. Those kids will likely never remember seeing this rare astronomical event by eye — but it's a sure bet that few, if any of them will get another chance to do so.
Walter Dalitsch III
More than thirty years after I worked overtime on the farm all summer to buy my first "real" telescope as a young teenager, that Celestron 8 — dirty, scuffed, and undoubtedly out of alignment after multiple military moves — still keeps the excited kid inside me alive. I shot very simply with a cheap Mylar filter and my wife's eight-year-old Nikon D100 DSLR, then colored the Sun yellow with generic computer photo software. These images are why astronomy still excites me. The only thing of astronomical value older than my telescope is my first issue of S&T, given to me by a teacher in 1979.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina shook the windows of the First United Methodist Church of Poplarville, Mississippi, and chipped out a tiny piece of the stained-glass window that sits under the eave high above the pulpit area. The chip created a pinhole camera which projects an image of the Sun on the walls more than 50 feet away. As the Sun approached solar maximum, I was hoping to see sunspots in this projected image, but the resolution of the image was not sharp enough. It wasn’t until the morning of June 5th that it occurred to me that the church’s pinhole camera might be good enough to view the Venus transit. It was — the planet appeared as a small dot on the solar disk. A group of us watched the transit until the Sun started to set in the trees behind the church.
Be sure to check out our online photo gallery of reader submissions. Please submit your own best shots, and keep sending in your reports (you can post them as comments below).
You can also watch Venus approaching the Sun through the corona on NASA's YouTube channel.