Venus Transit: A recap
6/6/2012 6:08 PM
The 2012 Venus Transit could not have gone better for me. A once (or twice!) in a lifetime event that turned out perfectly - or as perfect as one can hope, anyway. I had occasionally mentioned the Venus Transit in past weekly videos. The full week before was my pièce de rèsistance for my "Eyes on the Sky" videos, as I made quite a few characters, most notably Guillaume Le Gentil. But of course the real thing - the actual transit - was the reason for all of this hoopla.
The weekend had indicated clear weather for Tuesday evening, but I know better than to get too excited about clear weather conditions too far in advance. But Tuesday arrived, the sky was blue, and the temperature was a comfortable 75F - though it was a bit windy. I had first raised the idea for this event with a local park district back in November of 2011, which has a prime west-facing location outside of town - and they had been looking to get more people out to this spot anyway. It turned out to be ideal (more on that later).
Arriving at 4:00 or so with a ice-filled cooler stocked with Sunkist orange soda (could there be a better drink name for a Venus Transit?), I had plenty of time to get set up for the 5:04pm first contact. Other club members arrived around the same time I did, and there were already some curious residents that had come out to witness the event with us. I had brought four telescopes: My 6" f/5, 90mm f/10, 76mm f/4 Funscope and a cheap/used 60mm refractor with an eyepiece projection setup on it. Turns out that the last one was the ideal setup, given all the other scopes we had on hand.
And how! For a club that counts 40 or so members and usually nets 20 per monthly meeting and 6 on a good outreach event, we had 17 there, and at least 12 telescopes. That was a fantastic turnout. And the public was wonderful too - a respectful crowd that came and went, but never seemed to drop below at least 30 or 40 additional folks at any one time, and probably topping 60 or more at peak.
Not knowing what would be the best setup intially, I set up the 6" f/5 first. I noticed people had trouble picking out the Sun, since the Baader solar film I have for that filter provides a VERY white image of the Sun. I brought out the Funscope, using an adapted 60mm filter for it, and set it on a chair, knowing from my Chicago Astronomer outreach activities that little kids 1) have a hard time reaching the scopes and 2) and even harder time keeping their head still while a parent holds them to the eyepiece, which then is hard for them to look through. This way, they could lean OVER the scope, and see the Sun. That worked out pretty well.
But about 10 minutes before it started, I began to wonder if a different set up would be best. I brought out the CG-3 mount and the 60mm refractor with eyepiece projection. Not long after 5:04, one of our members piped up, "It's begun!" I was having trouble seeing the first "notch" on the projection set up, but the 6" was tracking on it's own, so I didn't have to worry about it. The CG-3 on the other hand, was not keeping up well. The variable motor drive was not playing nice, as I think the 9V battery in it was dying. I used a lot of "hand forcing" to keep the projected image centered, which worked fine for a little while.
More importantly, I was concerned about 2nd contact: The moment when the full disk of Venus was JUST touching the limb of the Sun, inside the Sun's disk. Fortunately, I managed to get the 60mm scope to track well enough for that stretch that I snapped a few pictures of the planet nearing that 2nd contact point. I think I got a pretty good photo for this "last ever in my lifetime" event.
After that, I things got easier. I decided to take the 6" scope off the SkyViewPro mount, which was tracking pretty well despite my not-so-great polar alignment (hey, I did it in full sunlight!). I swapped the 60mm refractor onto that mount, which simplified what I could do, and engage visitors more. It also meant I only had to worry about two scopes, instead of one - and not even really that, as one of our members was doing a wonderful job of keeping the Funscope tracking on the Sun.
We had a myriad of scopes there: Two PST's, a Lunt, at least one larger Dob, I think a couple of SCT's, and I know an 8" reflector and a 4" refractor (those were the ones closest to me). It was a lot of fun having people come up and engage them in conversation about the eyepiece projection set up. I had one gentleman ask me to explain how previous transit viewers of the 18th and 19th centuries were able to get such accurate time readings for their transit contact sightings (I explained about the moons of Jupiter and timekeeping then). A reporter and photographer stopped by, and we had a front page photo of our event in the local paper - a nice boost for the club! We handed out a number of business cards to people who expressed more interest in astronomy, and what was heartening to me was the incredible mix of ages present. Young ones, teenagers, 20-somethings all the way through 80-somethings (maybe more? I didn't ask!), were all represented, along with minorities and a nice blend of males and females.
I truly couldn't have asked for a better day. At the end, as the sun was setting with the Transit still in mid-progress, I managed to capture this last image on my eyepiece projection screen. A fitting ending for a last-in-my-lifetime event. I will miss it, but not the memories. I look forward to the next "big" astronomy event - perhaps an interloper comet, but more likely the 2017 solar eclipse occurring in southern Illinois, just a few hours south of me.
I can't wait.