Observation Log 6/8/04 – The Transit of Venus!

Venus transits the SunYes, it’s (deep announcer voice)The Transit Of Venus… with a twist (image by SLOOH, Michael Paolucci)

Allow me to start at the end. I’m writing this sitting on my astronomy chair, by the side of busy Rt. 101 somewhere near Pack Monadnock (a mountain about an hour from my house) with my laptop, a backpack with some water and snacks, and lots of time on my hands. It’s about 8AM, my car broke down on my way home from the transit viewing, and the dealer says I have to get it towed in or risk expensive damage to the car. Thankfully I came prepared, and can write up an exciting morning’s viewing.

I arrived at the peak of Pack Monadnock at 5AM, and there was already a moderate gathering of New Hampshire Astronomical Society members and astronomy buffs set up and looking to the east. The sun hadn’t come out yet, but folks were excited. I walked around, said Hi, and scoped out a place to place my ‘scope. As I was finishing the setup… Hey, is that my tow truck? Nope, guess not. He kept going.

Anyway, I was just getting set up when the top limb of the sun peeked out from behind distant clouds. It was a deep red. Hey, it is my tow truck! Later!

OK, now I’m at the car dealer, connecting to the internet via Airport Extreme. How cool is this? Coincidentally, a customer and a salesperson behind me are talking about how great Apple stores are. Awesome! Anyway, I have some coffee, which is helping at 10AM after waking up at 3AM after two hours sleep.

Back to the transit. I was just finishing my setup when the hubbub of “There it is!” began. The only thing visible in the sky was the moon and a sliver of the sun, neither of which are part of my Celestron N8i’s Auto-Align library, so I had to dead reckon level and north, set the scope for solar tracking, and hope for the best. It turned out pretty darn good. I attached my 2″ TeleVue shorty diagonal and my 17mm Nagler (which works out to about 120x) and went looking for history. Venus transits the Sun It was the first time I’d used the solar filter, and I wasn’t expecting pitch black through the eyepiece. I had a bad time finding the Sun, even with the red dot pointer. After a bit of frustration, and falling back to a lower magnification, I calmed down, used a methodical approach, and finally found it. The time was about 5:40, and Venus was just clearing the low clouds. The air was very turbulent, and Venus’ shadow resembled a misshapen, tumbling pebble more than a neat circle (at left, image by Larry Lopez). There was green fringing on one side of the planet, and red on the other. With all that, the view was breathtaking. Someone kept saying, “Wow.” It was me. I wished my Dad and Jan could have been there to see it. I tried holding my little digital camera to the eyepiece for a shot, but it didn’t work well.

Then came the fun part. People had come up the mountain with the hope of looking through someone’s scope, and I really enjoyed sharing. I even walked around and peeked through a few other scopes. With the exception of a beauty of a 6″ apochromat refractor with a video camera cranked up to 3000x, I liked mine the best. Maybe folks brought their portable scopes instead of their really good ones, but most of the scopes present were small. And folks were mostly using low magnification, with the Sun’s disk taking up 1/3 of the field of view. My FOV was about 80% the apparent size of the sun, but I kept Venus centered, so I saw at most half of the sun. It was perfect.

Venus transits the Sun After watching the transit and sharing eyepiece time, the clouds rolled in. For the next hour, everyone milled, shared stories, and kept an eye out for breaks in the cloud cover. We got teased a lot–there’s be a ten second peek every so often, sometimes a minute or two. Enough to track the progress of the transit, and enjoy the improved seeing. Venus was a solid circle, and the sun was crisp. A few small sunspots were visible. This went on for an hour or so, and we doubted we’d get to see Venus exit the Sun’s disk. Luck was on our side, and the clouds broke for almost all of the last twenty minutes of the transit. It was amazing to see Venus approach the Sun’s limb for “Contact 3.” We were all calling out what we saw, and the community was very nice. Some people saw the “black drop effect” noted by all the 19th century observers. A few of the guys with the better scopes and TeleVue eyepieces never saw it, myself included. The optics of the day must have had a lot to do with the phenomenon. When Venus had progressed about 15% off the Sun’s disk, I noticed a thin white line completing the circle of the planet–the Venusian atmosphere illuminated (see SLOOH image above)! I called it out, and at first no one saw it. (I think I had a bit of an advantage in optics and aperture.) After a few moments, one of the guys videotaping the whole thing cranked up his gain, and there it was. I saw his tape later–what a beautiful sight. It lent a 3D feeling to the view. Anyway, we got to see the rest of the egress, right up to completion. And again, no black drop effect. It was obvious when the transit was over. What a sight. We all joked a bit when it was over: one person said, “Hey, who got the time of completion?” A few people said they hadn’t. I said, “Now we’ll never know how far away the sun is!” referring to the many (mostly failed) attempts to determine it during the last transit 124 years ago. I got a few laughs, which I’m not ashamed to say was very gratifying. I’m new to this group. (Photo at right by Herb (sorry, last name unknown))

We all packed up, said our goodbyes (mixed with a few nice thank-yous from the scopeless folks) and drove down the mountain. This was when I noticed my engine light was blinking and the car sounded rough and felt very sluggish. I called the dealer as I drove home, and the service adviser said, “Pull over now and get it towed in.”

And this is where I started. I’m still at the dealership. When I get home, I’ll try and get a few pictures to go with this blog entry. A bunch of the NHAS members were either videotaping or snapping photos, and it would be nice to include some shots or links. Who knows, maybe mine even turned out somewhat usable.

Additional links: Space.com’s coverage of the transit; Michael Kertyzak’s movie of the transit.

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