Venus Transit in the Press

Public awareness of a unique astronomical event, the Transit of Venus, is appearing. While avid sky-watchers have been anticipating this event for years, the general public is mostly unaware of the event.

This seems to be changing… A number of articles have appeared in the mainstream press this last week, from MSNBC to Fox News, providing information about the transit.

Yes, it is the same article on all of the sites, all apparently picked up from the site. There is some lesson here on the nature of corporate news today. In any case it is nice to see an astronomical event getting coverage. Any opportunity to get more astronomy onto the public stage is to be taken advantage of.

A transit is a less spectacular event, not exactly a total solar eclipse. It is quite interesting from an astronomical and historical standpoint. There are other articles, the transit is getting more press as the date approaches. In the run up to June 5th it will be interesting to see just what the public response to this event will be.

Venus Transit on Mauna Kea

A Venus Transit is a truly rare event. Transits occur in pairs eight years apart, with the next pair not occurring for another 120 years. The first event of the current pair occurred in 2004. Thus the next event will happen in June 2012. Considering the century long period between events, this is the last chance to witness a Venus transit during our lifetimes.

The 2012 event will be visible from the west coast of North America to Japan, China, Australia and Central Asia. For those wanting to observe the entire event from start to finish the choices narrow quite a bit. You have the choice of the Central Pacific, Japan, as well as Eastern China and Eastern Australia. This, of course, includes here in the Hawaiian Islands.

Many sky-watchers from North America will see only one choice if they wish to observe the event… the Big Island. The only place easily accessible by air, featuring excellent visitor accommodation, and an observing site that sits above the clouds that could so easily interfere with carefully laid plans. For the serious observer there is one obvious choice… Mauna Kea.

We saw the first signs of this well over a year ago. The tour companies that specialize in astronomy related travel, the folks that feature solar eclipse tours and similar events, began scouting Mauna Kea as a destination. Then the ads appeared, in Sky & Telescope magazine, Astronomy magazine, etc., “See the transit from Mauna Kea!” We had fair warning that this event was not going to pass peacefully.

2012 Venus Transit Visibility
Visibility chart for the 2012 Venus transit, image credit: Fred Espenak/NASA

Some folks seem to think the crowd will be huge, a thousand people or more. I am not so certain, this does not have the general appeal of a total solar eclipse. The transit is something that will be of interest to amateur astronomers and some interested segments of the public. I personally expect hundreds of people coming to Mauna Kea to view the transit, not thousands.

However many folks do ascend the mountain for this event, we have begun putting plans in place to handle it. Various groups have met to do a bit of planning. Most significantly, those in charge of managing the mountain, The Office of Mauna Kea Management, are putting a few measures in place. As usual, expect to stop at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station on the day of the transit. But this day there will be a few differences…

  • All available MKSS staff will be on duty. All of the Mauna Kea rangers and visitor station staff will be helping make sure assistance is available to visitors when traveling to the high altitude environment of the summit.
  • Access to the mountain will be controlled for the day, a gate at the VIS allowing access for official vehicles only.
  • A free shuttle will run from the VIS to the summit. The Mauna Kea tour companies providing the vehicles and drivers.
  • Solar telescopes and video monitors will be set up at the VIS to allow safe viewing. Staff will be available to answer questions and assists with the equipment.
  • Several other locations on the island will be setup for viewing the transit with solar telescopes and staff. Expect these to include ‘Imiloa, Keck HQ in Waimea, and some possible other locations.

All of these plans are somewhat preliminary, details may change as the date approaches and final arrangements are made. I will attempt to post what I know here on Darker View.

Myself? I plan to observe the event from the summit. Set up behind Keck with a solar telescope to photograph the transit. We plan to set up a live feed of the transit for use by other sites, and available to viewers across the internet.

Mercury Transit

About a dozen times a century Mercury passes in front of the Sun as seen from Earth. The event is observable with a modest telescope and a solar filter, Mercury can be seen as a small black dot crossing the surface of the Sun. If half of those happen when the sun is below your horizon the average person will have the chance to observe five or six in a lifetime. Since the next opportunity will not occur until May 9th, 2016 I didn’t want to miss this one!

Photographing a Mercury Transit
90mm refractor Violet Haze photographing the transit
I took the day off.

Considering that Mercury never gets very far from the Sun means that most of the time you can observe Mercury it is low on the horizon and is typically seen through a great deal of atmospheric distortion. A transit is one exception to this, during a transit mercury is a sharp disk, very different from the multicolor jello ball that is usually seen.

The 2006 Transit was well timed for observation across western North America, starting just after noontime and ending at 5:09pm MST. This put the Sun high in the sky for all but the last part of the event. Our weather cooperated as well, delivering a cloudless blue sky the entire day in place of the clouds that had been forecast. The air was reasonably steady as well allowing good photographic and observing conditions.

I took advantage of the weather and photographed almost the entire transit, all but the very end when the sun sank below the trees in my neighborhood. I used the Canon 20Da and setup a timer to shoot every 5min. The only issue was the inability to do a polar alignment on the mount when setting up in the middle of the day. The result was I had to manually guide the scope every 10-15 min to keep the sun centered.

I got plenty of good photographic material, enough for a few single photos as well as an animation of the transit. A transit is an impressive demonstration of the scale and arrangement of our solar system. Not hard to visualize the reality of those textbook drawings of planetary orbits after you have had such an opportunity to see the real thing.

No complaints on my second Mercury transit.

Mercury Transit 8Nov2006
The Mercury transit of 8 Nov 2006 in progress. Mercury is about halfway between the center to the bottom, a large sunspot complex is visible on the left edge. Photo with a 90mm APO refractor, a Thousand Oaks full aperture filter and a Canon 20Da camera.