2012 Venus Transit – What Great Luck!

NOTE: this is a cross posted article I wrote for kopernikastro.org.

Of the worst ways to start an astronomical visual observing blog entry is with, “It was a cold and rainy evening.”  I was the primary support person at the observatory tonight, and I have to say I wasn’t in much of a hurry to get to the observatory.  Due to the cloudy and rainy forecast and current weather conditions, I didn’t think many people would come to the observatory, and definitely didn’t consider rushing to a small crowd watching NASA TV a high priority.

Considering the “Just in Case” scenario, when I arrived at the observatory, I placed the Baader Herschel Wedge into the 6” Astrophysics F/12 Refractor with a 40mm eyepiece.  Turned the scope on, and placed it roughly where Sol would be if the dreaded upstate NY cloud cover wasn’t there.  It looked hopeless out there, but it looked good to the crowd that was amassing, and it gave me something to do other than wallow in my sol-less pity.  I even prepped the dome for rapid opening in the weird chance of a clearing.  But the clear sky clock said something like “keep dreaming” across the Kopernik Observatory banner (I think I saw that there).

To my surprise, and delight, there were about 225 eager enthusiasts amassing at the observatory to learn some about the Venus Transit, the Sun, and the importance of this event.  I was “wow’d” given the horrific weather we had.  I can’t believe that this many folks came all the way up to see our solar observing equipment and watch part of the transit on NASA TV.  Fantastic!  An awesome outreach reflection.

A friend of mine dedicated a bunch of time and money to re-vamping Kopernik’s heliostat and getting it back in service after 8 years of being out of commission.  For those who don’t know what a heliostat is, it is basically two mirrors angled just right to reflect light into a refractor telescope.  The refractor can then project the image on a screen or large surface inside the room below it.  The mirrors track the sun through electric servo motors, and everything else remains stationary.  Our heliostat is an F/12 4” telescope, that runs about 6’ down through the ceiling into the observatory’s physics classroom.  The solar image projected in this case is about 7 feet in diameter – a large view of the sun and it’s white light features.  A very cool tool!

Anyway, I was discussing all the improvements with KAS member Jim who spear-headed the project to fix it up.  What a great job he and his team did!  Amazing stuff,and such a kind donation of time, money, machined parts, resurfaced mirrors, etc.  As I was oogling over this really cool piece of equipment, Jim pointed to this strange stretch of clear blue sky in the north…let the real oogling begin.  This was hope.

Immediately we FREAKED out.  Couldn’t believe what we were seeing.  This could be real.  The Astro Society members started quietly passing the word around.  We needed to get ready, but at the same time didn’t want to get too many people’s hopes up.

Quietly, the following equipment displays were setup and configured for solar observing, it took about 20 – 30 minutes to complete the work:

  1. 6” Refractor Telescope setup with Baader Herschel Wedge (Green Neutral Density Filter)
  2. 14” C14 SCT with H-Alpha configuration.
  3. 6” Refractor with Lunt Herschel Wedge
  4. 4” Heliostat projecting 7 foot diameter Sun on Screen.
  5. 4” Questar, Mylar Film Filter, web cam displayed on laptop.
  6. 80mm Lunt H-Alpha Solar Telescope imaged and displayed on laptop
  7. 70mm Coronado CaK Solar Telescope imaged and displayed on a laptop
  8. Coronado PST H-Alpha Telescope
  9. 8” Dobsonian Telescope projecting onto a large homemade box screen.
  10. Multiple Astroscans projecting onto small box screens.
  11. NASA TV Coverage

It took a while for the “stripe of clear sky” to work it’s way from North to South…running right along the western horizon.  Amazing placement.  At roughly 7:00 PM the what seemed impossible happened.  The sun peaked out to see the Greater Binghamton Region.  Cheers from across the observing field and domes roared as people were so excited they could see this for the last time in their lives.  It was movie-esque.  What a lovely moment in public astronomy outreach. Quite literally, the sky parted, and the people rejoiced!

It took me a while to center up the sun.  But I got it in before it was truly visible.  What looked like a glowing Aurora in the  eyepiece were the brighest parts of the illuminated breaking clouds.  I announced that I had it to the public observers waiting patiently in my dome.  They clapped.

For about 55 minutes, we were able to enjoy observing the transit through many instruments and sources.  The public also excitedly waited in lines.  It was pretty dramatic too, as no one new how long the stretch would last.  We didn’t know who would be the last to see the transit through any particular instrument.

After we cycled most of the the crowd through most of the instruments, the sun set, and immediately after things clouded back up.  It was an amazing coincidence, and most of the KAS was excited about this crazy, dramatic chance we stepped into.  It was AWESOME!

As the images that were taken are made available, I will publish them to this blog, as well as tweeting them – it may take a few days!