May 21, 2012

The Transit of Venus- A Once in a Lifetime Experience

 CD Project Master 038.jpg

Planet Venus will cross the face of the Sun Tuesday afternoon, June 5th (the morning of June 6th for people in Asia and the western Pacific).  Left: I shot this image in New Hampshire during my 2004 Venus transit expedition


This is called a Transit of Venus

This event will truly be a once in a lifetime experience. The next Transit of Venus won’t occur until December, 2117 (105 years hence!)


I will be hosting a “Transit of Venus” observing party Tuesday June 5th at Granny’s restaurant, 4405 Hwy 11, Elizabeth, Indiana. Granny’s is located at the intersection of Hwy 211 and Hwy 11 about a mile north of the town of Elizabeth. Image left, Carol, Elise and Brandi will be our hosts at Granny’s. That’s Susie trying to hide behind Carol

The Transit Party will start at 3:30 PM with a “Pinhole Camera” workshop. With a pinhole camera you will be able to safely watch the transit (and the Sun for as long as you keep your camera) without using a telescope!

Registration is required for the “Pinhole Camera” workshop. Register here. Leave name and phone number or email address.  Each participant will be required to bring a shoebox or oatmeal box, a 1 inch square of aluminum foil and a white 3×5 index card

At 4pm I will present a program to explain what we’ll see and what to look for during the transit with some historic perspective and facts about the scientific experiments to be conducted during the 2012 transit

At 4:30 we will break for snacks (possibly Venus Transit pizza or cupcakes?). We’ll also play the “Who Wants to be an Astronaut”  quiz for some neat prizes

We will start observing the Sun and sunspots at 5:00 PM with a telescope outfitted with SPECIAL SOLAR FILTERS


The Transit will begin shortly after 6pm.

Here is a lecture from one of my favorite astronomers, Williams college professor Jay Pasachoff, that will give you some background about the significance and splendor of the transits of Venus

Amherst college astronomer David Peck Todd travelled to California to observe and photograph the 1882 transit from atop Mt. Hamilton, site of the Lick observatory. He took nearly 150 images. For a variety of reasons his images were all but forgotten until 2003 when Anthony Misch and Bill Sheehan realized Todd’s glass negatives were stored in a vault at Lick. Misch and Sheehan “re-animated” Todd’s images to create this “moving picture” video

After sunset we’ll do a little “planet gazing” after removing the solar filters from the telescopes if there’s interest. Mars and Saturn are prominent in the evening sky now and there will be a relatively low (20 degree) pass of the International Space Station shortly after 10 pm. I will provide free star maps of the June skies for the first 20 families to attend

In the event of cloudy weather we’ll watch streaming video of the transit online, however seeing Venus crossing the face of the Sun is much more exciting when watched at the telescope or with a pinhole camera so cross your fingers for clear skies!

Remember, NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN! SEVERE EYE DAMAGE WILL RESULT. We will have professional, safe filters on our telescopes for this event. Hope to see you there!

If you can’t join us for the Transit party or attend a public viewing you can safely observe the transit with a pinhole camera. Transits aren’t dangerous, looking at the Sun is!  Permanent eye damage can result in an instant. Fashion a simple pinhole camera made from a shoe box. Here’s a handy how to video from Natalie Wolchover at


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May 19, 2012

The first solar eclipse for North America in nearly 20 years


The first of 2012’s solar eclipses happens Sunday/Monday May 20/21 for what will be the first solar eclipse visible in the continental US since 1994 but it will be “annular”, not total. More on that in a moment. The eclipse begins as the Moon’s shadow falls across southeastern China shortly after 6am local time Monday morning. The center line of this annular or “ring of fire” eclipse will sweep northeast along China’s coast. People in Guangzhou (Canton) will be treated to just over 4 minutes of the “ring of fire” just after sunrise.

The next landfall will be along Japan’s east coast. Residents of Osaka and Tokyo will be treated to between 3 and 5 minutes of the show starting around 7:30 am local time. As luck would have it the instant of greatest eclipse will occur over open water in the north Pacific just southwest of the Aleutians. The leading edge of the Moon’s shadow cone will arc north, sweeping just south of the Aleutians, crossing the International Date Line where the date is Sunday, May 20th.

Click image for eclipse animation

The “antumbra” shadow then turns southeast where it will make first contact with the west coast of the U.S. at 6:23 pm Pacific Daylight time. The center line will fall near the Oregon-California border. Observers near Eureka and Redding will be centerline for the annular phase as will folks near Carson City, NV and St. George, UT. Amateurs from the Salt Lake Astronomical Society will celebrate the eclipse at Bryce Canyon as mid-eclipse sweeps over them at 7:34 MDT. The Grand Canyon, Four Corners and Albequerque will be treated to 3-4 minutes of annularity as the Sun sets. Buddy Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, TX is near the end of the path of annularity.

The path of annularity on this eclipse will be roughly 200 miles wide for the entire track.
Why won’t this be a total eclipse? The Moon will have been at apogee, furthest from Earth, just 32 hours before the eclipse. Remember the “Super Moon” of May 6th? That was fourteen days ago. Each lunation is 28 days and during May and June lunar perigees are occuring close to “full” phase and apogee near “new” phase. For this eclipse the Moon will be nearly at its most distant from Earth. Those along or near the center line will see about 93% of the Sun’s disc covered by the Moon’s shadow.

Much of North America will see at least a partial eclipse, including those as far north as Vancouver and as far southeast as Memphis. However for those of us in the southeastern U.S. this eclipse will be fleeting. For example, I live near Louisville, KY where the Moon’s shadow will slice across the Sun’s disc a mere 25 minutes prior to sunset with the Sun about 5 degrees above the horizon!

Of course I must repeat the warning that you NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN. Permanent eye damage can result in an instant. As Joe Rao says eclipses aren’t dangerous, looking at the Sun is! Always. Fashion a simple pinhole camera made from a shoe box. Here’s a great “how to” from Natalie Wolchover at

Calculate eclipse timing with this computer from the US Naval Observatory

Check Jay Anderson’s Eclipser site for weather and cloud cover data. Get southwest for this one if you can!

Click this Google map of the eclipse path from NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center

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