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In Transit

Published on June 18, 2012

June 5, 2012.  LOOK!  Up in the sky!

Nah. It was not Superman.  He’s out making movies with the other Superheroes.

It was the transit of Venus…and don’t think that if you missed it last week, you’ll just see it the next time. Because of the way that Venus and the Earth orbit around the sun–not in the same plane but at an angle to each other–these events only take place in pairs that are eight years apart and separated by a century.   Next time will be in the year  2117.  The next one to be visible in the Midwest will be in December of 2125.  Don’t hold your breath.

It definitely was cool…or hot, depending upon how you look at it (And you’d better not look at it directly, unless you want to fry your eyeballs).

Venus is slightly smaller than Earth and closer to the Sun.  Scientists tell us that it is considerably hotter than we are (Though we are apparently trying to catch up).  So…since it is between us and the Sun, every so often (see above) we can see it, as a small, round, dark shadow–sort of like a black marble, move across the face of the Sun.  Without a protective light filter of some kind, viewing this phenomenon can cause major damage to sight.  And you won’t actually SEE much either–too bright.

On the appointed day, June 5, 2012 (or June 6, depending on which side of the International Dateline you’re located on), folks started to gather at the open lot in Hiram where the old school building used to be (It wasn’t to be observed at the Observatory–the logical place–because at that location, the trees, which had been just saplings at the time of its construction, had grown too high to allow anyone–telescope or no–to see anything taking place close to the horizon.  Why do you think that they build observatories on top of mountains?) in hopes of getting to see this astronomical event which was scheduled to begin at approximately 6:04.  Uh-oh…clouds at twelve o’clock…also at three o’clock, four o’clock, five o’clock…you get the idea.

The setting up of telescopes proceeded in hopes that there might be a meteorological intervention, removing the cumulonimbus/altostratus/cirrus/whatever white & gray stuff that had been blowing around all day.  At least it wasn’t raining!  Then….  Lo!  And Behold!  The clouds parted.  Game On!

There were two telescopes, each with a different filter; actually, the smaller ‘scope had an additional instrument, with yet another filter (Hydrogen-alpha, the guru called it).  This all meant that Old Sol could be observed in green, red-orange or yellow, depending upon which eyepiece one was at.  Venus was the same no matter what–black.  One of the telescopes allowed the detection of “solar prominences”, places where the incredible energy of the Sun just sort of bulged out away from the surface–not a solar flare, exactly–those shoot outward many  miles, more like “fountains of plasma” that gave an appearance of incandescent undulation.  Hot Stuff!

One other filter allowed the viewer to see sunspots, looking as though our star had been  lightly peppered before going to the grill.  There were quite a few of the little pepper spots.  Have you noticed the quality of electronic communications lately?  If you’ve had many interruptions or much static, you can probably blame those guys.  We’re in a relatively low sunspot activity period right now, so any major flare-up has consequences.

So…(sort of)clear skies, instruments ready.  Let the games begin!

Lots of people came…big ones, little ones (Some of these didn’t quite know what the big deal was but when Mom said, “Do you see it?  Do you see it?” most of them gave in to the inevitable and said, “Oh, yeah” and got down off the stool they had climbed up to get a look.  The best was a young fellow,  probably not expecting much, who squinted fiercely into the eyepiece, actually saw the little black dot crossing the glowing disk and said, “SWEET!”), folks who had read up on the event or heard of it on the news, couples, family groups, educators, people who just wanted to say that they had seen the transit of Venus, whatever it was.  Almost everybody (Except the kids mentioned above) came back at least once, some circulated through the three views several times.  Lots of questions, lots of ooohs and aaahs.

The parade went on for close to an hour-and-a-half, maybe two and then, as if on cue, just as the Sun got near to the treetop horizon and Venus was pretty close to finishing its epic journey, the cloud curtain that had been about all day closed again and the show was over.  Bravo!

And that was it. Sic Transit Gloria Veneris.

Mark your calendars for other big upcoming astronomical events : 5/9/15–transit of Mercury, 8/2/27 solar eclipse, 2029 asteroid 99942 Apophis passes between the Earth and the Moon (could disturb its orbit to cause trouble on the next fly-by, to occur on Friday, April 13, 2036), 2061–return of Halley’s comet…and watch for the supernova… coming this century?

Image Credit: NASA/SDO, AIA

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