Monday, June 11, 2012

Transit of Venus

Projected image of the transit of Venus on June 5, 2012, at 7:06 PM MDT
Like many like-minded folks, Nan and I figured out a way to view the transit of Venus last Tuesday. We knew from our experience with the annular eclipse last month that binoculars would work to safely project the sun's image. The problem, when we tried them for the eclipse, was to hold them steady enough. The little dot that would be the projected image of Venus would be really hard to see while holding the binoculars with one shaking hand and a sheet of white paper with the other shaking hand. And it would take a third shaking hand to adjust the focus.

I came up with the simplest solution I could think of: I rubber-banded the binoculars to my camera tripod. This left my hands free to adjust position and focus, and to get the best possible projected image. It wasn't much to look at, as you can see in the photo (click for a full-size view), taken at 7:06 PM MDT, about three hours into the seven-hour transit. But it was our last chance to see a transit of Venus in our lifetimes, so it was worth it.

Growing up in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, my friend Gene Hanson and I would spend summer evenings looking at the night sky through his Tasco 4.5-inch reflector telescope. Thanks to Gene, I have seen all of the planets, except for the recently demoted Pluto. If you know about astronomy, you know that this is not an easy achievement. Timing is everything. On the cold, clear morning of November 10, 1973, Gene and I woke up before dawn to lug his telescope down to Hoyt Park, where we would have a good view of the sun rising through a gap in the trees above the east-west oriented parkway. As the sun rose, we projected its image onto a small screen attached to the telescope, and there we saw a tiny spot, the elusive planet Mercury, near the end of its transit. For two geeky fifteen-year-olds, it was quite a thrill.

Gene has maintained his keen interest in astronomy through the years, getting bigger and bigger telescopes, and even arranging his life so he could live where the viewing is excellent north of Phoenix. His work with variable stars was recognized in 2002 when he was awarded the Leslie C. Peltier Award by the Astronomical League. For amateur astronomers, this is equivalent to being inducted into the hall of fame. Way to go, Gene!

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