Sunday, June 10, 2012


Me and Mr. Sun

The Venus transit! Last chance to see lovely Aphrodite cross the face of the Sun in our lifetimes, muchachos. Naturally Unk wanted to catch it, and naturally he prepared for it in his usual haphazard and confused fashion. “Got to go to the shipyard in New Orleans Tuesday. I’ll leave by noon and be home in time to pick up Miss Dorothy and head for somewhere where we can get a good view.” "Plan" in place, I loaded up the short tube 80 and its little GEM in the 4Runner and lit out for Avondale, Louisiana.

I was back home by 2 p.m., and with a little time to kill I fired up the Internet on Chaos Manor South’s kitchen workstation. “Well, that’s funny. Thought there’d be more folks talking about the Transit. Huh! Guess I’ll get the exact time of first contact for us with Cartes du Ciel. Why is Venus so far away from the Sun? What’s wrong with Cartes? Wait…Dorothy, honey, what’s today’s date?

Yep, Unk was preparing to head out for the Venus transit exactly one week early. I was abashed, but at least Miss D. and I had a good laugh over it. In my defense, I’ve been awful busy lately, and the Transit and finding a way to squeeze it into my schedule has been much on my mind such as it is. Having an extra week did allow me to get my ducks in a more orderly row, starting with the telescope. Now that I had time to think about it, I decided I wanted to watch Venus with something better than the dadgum Short Tube 80—but what?

And where should we observe from? My friend, former student, and Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Vice President, Jonathan, thought the best place for the club to set up would be Fairhope pier on Mobile Bay, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. Since this would be a sunset transit, we’d have an unobstructed view to the west over the water.

Well, we'd have an unobstructed view if it wasn’t obstructed by clouds. The weather reports on Monday the fourth were not encouraging. We went from “scattered thunderstorms possible” to “thunderstorms with possible severe weather.” Ain't that always the way it always is for any astronomy “spectacular”? I went to bed Monday night with few hopes but resolved to head out to Fairhope as long as it wasn't pouring down rain.

Before I tell y’all how the big day turned out, maybe a few remarks about Unk’s relationship with Mr. Sun are appropriate. It’s been an off again – on again friendship, y’all. As a sprout I was fascinated with the idea of seeing sunspots, but I was afraid to look at ‘em. The stern and heartfelt warnings against viewing the Sun with a telescope my mentor, Patrick Moore, put in his books dang sure dissuaded me. If Mr. Moore said “no,” it was “no.”

Still, I was semi-tempted when I got my first telescope, a 3-inch Tasco reflector. Like most of the Japanese telescopes of the day, it came with a Sun filter. An eyepiece Sun filter. Such a thing is inherently dangerous, since it’s screwed on to the ocular near prime focus. It doesn’t take long for one to overheat and crack, possibly and disastrously while you are using it. I knew that from Patrick’s writings, but was still tempted. Tasco wouldn’t give me something that was dangerous, would they?

Luckily, I suppose, Daddy, who was almost as big a fan of Patrick Moore as I was, spotted the Sun filter in the little scope’s box and took possession of it immediately. We did both take a brief look at the Sun with it late one afternoon, and I do mean brief, maybe three seconds, with daddy slewing the scope off the Sun between his look and mine to allow the filter to cool. In retrospect, there probably wasn’t much danger with three inches of aperture, but following our peeps at Sol, daddy wisely took a nail and hammer to the filter and that was the end of it.

What had I seen during the brief peek Daddy allowed? Not much, but what little I did see, the orange and featureless limb of the Sun, was somehow fascinating, and that quick look is still clear in my mind’s eye. I won’t say I became obsessed with the Sun, but I was interested, anyway.

I did a series of crayon drawings of my view enhanced by what I imagined sunspots would look like, and the corona I saw in the pictures of the Sun in Stars. My little girlfriend, Jitter Jones, was puzzled by my Sun’s colorful corona, saying it looked like the collar on Bozo the Clown’s costume—we watched his show every afternoon—but was also quick to add that my much labored over-masterpieces were “great.”

I didn’t get my next view of ol’ Sol till two years later, the second summer I had my Palomar Junior. I’d finally saved enough money for Edmund's camera mount so I could advance my program of taking Moon pictures with my Argus box camera. Well, I hadn’t really saved. I’d got a crisp five-dollar bill from my generous Aunt Lulu, and that, combined with a couple of dollars here and there from other relatives and a buck kicked in by the Old Man, was just enough to cover the cost of the afocal camera rig.

When it arrived, I was surprised to find a square of white-painted metal in the box. According to the instructions, you mounted that on the bracket in lieu of a camera and projected the Sun’s image on it. I got the idea, and was soon ready to give it a try. Everybody, even Patrick Moore, had to admit viewing the Sun by means of eyepiece projection was completely safe.

I knew not to look through the finder, and when I’d dragged the Pal Junior out onto the blacktop behind the carport, the area the OM called “the turnround,” I aimed it by pointing roughly at the day-star and moving the scope till its shadow was as small as I could get it. When it was, a sharp, clear, and bright image flashed onto the screen.

What did I see? I was lucky to be observing the Sun in 1967, two years from a Solar cycle maximum, and our star’s face was freckled with intricate sunspot groups. A little experimentation showed I could leave the 25mm Kellner in the scope and enlarge the images by sliding my projection screen farther from the eyepiece. I could zoom in on small areas of the disk that-a-way and get a clearer view than I got by switching to my pitiful 12mm Ramsden.

I very much enjoyed the Solar cycle that peaked in 1969. The finale came one summer afternoon that year. The OM was working on his latest project, a homebrew radio transceiver, and not just any transceiver, but a high-tech single-sideband transceiver. I had a brand spanking new “ticket,” a ham radio license, and liked to watch daddy work on his bench in the carport. His ham rigs lived in our Utility room till summer heat chased him out into the carport, and, finally, into the house despite Mama’s protests.

The Sun was fierce that afternoon in a way he can only be in Gulf Coast summer. Which impelled me to become curious as to what was going on with him. It had been a couple of weeks since I’d had a look. I got my Pal into the carport and assembled and was preparing to lug him onto the turnaround when I had an epiphany: the Sun was low enough that I could set the scope up in the carport and observe from in there, sharing the fan the Old Man had pointed at him. It was then that I got another idea. I wouldn’t need my sun projection screen; I could project Sol on the ceiling of the carport.

Which is exactly what I did. The Kellner threw a 3-foot wide Sun on the ceiling, and it was clear and incredibly detailed. Not only could I see sunspots with their lacy coronas, the granulation of the Sun's disk was clear. I yelled for the OM to come over, and we stood and stared for a long time. Too long. All of a sudden, the image dimmed as if a cloud had covered the Sun’s face. I poked my head outside. Nope. Not a cloud in sight. I had a sinking feeling and pulled the Kellner out of the focuser to check it.

The eyepiece’s formerly clear optics were cloudy. I asked the OM “What the hell?” So upset was young Unk that he actually uttered that profanity. Dang good thing Mama wasn’t within earshot. Daddy pretended he hadn’t heard the aitch word, "Well, it looks like the heat of the Sun didn’t do much for the Canada balsam.” Back in them days the elements of eyepieces were often glued together with what was in essence tree sap. The Sun’s heat had made this “glue” cloudy.

I was broken hearted since this was my best and lowest power eyepiece. OM to the rescue. He disassembled it. The heat had made the balsam lose its adhesive properties,so he was able to separate the two lens elements easily, clean them off, and put them back together without glue.

To be honest, the simple eyepiece worked as well (or as poorly) as it ever had, but I was devastated. After that, I didn’t turn a scope to the Sun again for years. I could have dedicated the now balsamless eyepiece to Solar use, but I was convinced, subconsciously anyway, that if I pointed a scope at the Sun again something bad was sure to happen. Patrick Moore was right after all.

The total solar eclipse of 1970 was all but clouded out for our part of the country, so I didn't have to worry about ruining another eyepiece to observe it. I had formulated a somewhat nebulous plan that involved me driving my decrepit 1962 Ford Galaxie across the panhandle of Florida to the path of totality (it passed not far from the spot where the Chiefland Astronomy Village lies today). Weather reports a day or two prior to the event made it pretty clear I’d be wasting my time, and the OM was eventually able to talk some sense into me: “Go ahead and go, but you won’t see a thing and I won’t be happy when I have to take off work and come rescue you when that Ford leaves you by the side of the road.”

I eventually got over my phobia and used projection to view a couple of partial solar eclipses in the 80s. That was about it, though. I’d sometimes resolve to spend more time with the Sun, monitoring and drawing his disk, but that would usually only last a day or two and I’d be back to spending the late afternoons watching Thundercats and Voltron: Defender of the Universe.

Since then? I've kept my hand in and maybe even kicked my Solar work up a notch or three.That began when I got my Short Tube 80 and on a whim one boring afternoon at a star party purchased a Thousand Oaks Solar filter for it. Even better was the excellent JMB full-aperture filter I got for my C8s a few years back, which made the detail I remembered from the Pal Junior’s images seem puny. Or would have if we hadn’t been at the bottom of a cycle. The biggest events in recent times Sun-wise? The Christmas partial eclipse of 2000 and, way bigger, the Venus transit of June 2004.

Transits of Venus, Venus crossing the disk of the Sun, are among the rarest of predictable astronomical events, occurring in pairs eight years apart and separated by gaps of either 121.5 or 105.5 years. You can dang sure bet my buddy Pat and I intended to see Venus’ dark spot cross Sol in 2004.

That year the event took place at sunrise, and the best place we found to observe it was on the Causeway across Mobile Bay, at Battleship Park. How was it? It was stupendous. We were troubled only a little by clouds, and our telescopes, my Short Tube 80 and Pat’s filtered Astroscan optics-based Newtonian reflector, did a good job even if Venus was a little small in them.

I talked to Pat shortly before last week’s second and final (for us) Transit. I told him I didn't have high hopes for the weather, but that that was OK. We’d seen the first one, and 2012 would just be the icing on the cake. That’s what I said, but deep down, I wanted to see Venus cross the Sun again. That always smoldering ember of interest in our star was threatening to burst into flame inside me again.

On the day of the event, I’d—wouldn’t you guess it—been called to New Orleans again. But just as on the day of my false start the previous week, I’d got out of there by mid-morning and was back at Chaos Manor South by 1330. I relaxed for a while, checking Cartes for the start of the event at Fairhope’s longitude. Looked like First Contact would be at about 1710, so me and Miss D. would need to leave around 1600.

At 1530 I loaded up the telescope and the other gear. This time I left the Short Tube 80 at home. I coulda taken a C8, but given the poor conditions—looked like the wind was gonna be kicking up and the seeing might be kinda punk—I demurred. The Sun + poor seeing + public viewing + possible threatening weather = long focus refractor. My 80mm f/11 Sky-Watcher, Eloise, ought to be perfect, and the Short Tube’s Thousand Oaks filter fits her perfectly.

Other stuff?The small eyepiece box, the one loaded with Plössls and Orion’s Expanse oculars. The relatively long focal length Eloise is very forgiving of simple eyepieces. The solar filter, of course. And that was it. I didn’t even pack my small observing table. I guessed there would be picnic table somewhere in the area that would serve.

The sky did not look great. It did not look good. It was barely fair, but Miss D. and I headed east at 4 p.m. nevertheless. Arriving at the pier, we were blown away. Literally. When we stepped out of the 4Runner the hats we brought to protect us from the June Sun—if there was any Sun—immediately tried to fly away. I estimated the wind was gusting up to 25 knots at least. Hell, normally placid Mobile Bay was white-capping. We held onto our hats, and since we didn’t see any of our buddies in or near the parking lot, we walked out onto the long pier.

Besides the high winds, one other disappointment was that the restaurant on the pier, Yardarm’s, where I'd hoped me and D. could have supper after the Transit, was closed. Ah, well. We didn’t see our friends on the pier, and it was way too windy think about setting up there. Heading back to land, we found Jonathan and company had set up in a nice grassy and somewhat protected area just east of the wharf. The wind was still a nuisance, but trees and bushes made it a tolerable nuisance.

I noted several members of the public were already hanging out in the area. We hadn't made a big deal of our Transit star party, but one of our longtime members who is on the staff of the local paper had got the word out. I have no doubt we probably would have hosted hundreds instead of tens of kids and adults if the weather had been better, but lower numbers made this a more fun and less stressful event for all concerned.

Miss Dorothy and I set up the refractor and waited, not just for Venus to begin her crossing, but for the Sun to escape the clouds. At 1630 he was completely invisible. An amateur astronomer’s hope springs eternal of course, and is sometimes rewarded. Just before the Transit was to began, sucker holes began to appear, and we were soon seeing a small “bite” out of Sol in Eloise, who offered a sharp and detailed image of the Sun, his spots, and Venus. This was a refractor day, and the 3-inch did as fine a job as I could have wanted.

I let our guests have a good look at the bite, but monopolized the scope for a few minutes as Venus’ disk began to move onto the Sun, directing our excited visitors to Jonathan’s 4.5-inch Dob-newt reflector and his Coronado hydrogen-alpha refractor.I wanted, above all, to see if I could detect the still somewhat mysterious “black drop”effect.

What’s that? Just as Venus is about to move completely onto the disk of the Sun, just before "second contact,” that is, a small black “teardrop” appears to connect the disk of the planet and the limb of the Sun. This “stretching out” of the planet makes it impossible to accurately time Second Contact, and used to be attributed to the planet’s thick atmosphere. These days it is thought to be nothing more than an optical illusion.

Optical illusion or no, I wanted to see it, and given the excellent images Eloise was delivering I was purty sure I would. Compared to what it was like in the Short Tube 80, Venus seemed huge in a 20mm expanse eyepiece. Sure enough, just as it pulled away from the limb, the black dot of Venus was stretched out and remained “connected” to the limb. Just as my brain processed the fact that I was actually seeing this legendary phenomenon, howsomeever, the Sun dimmed and went out. More incoming clouds, dagnabbit. I’d seen the black drop, but just barely.

We and our guests cooled our heels for a little while, but the Sun was back fairly soon,and kids and adults could just not get enough of him. One and all were amazed at how easy Venus was to see and how much it looked like the “preview” pictures CNN and Fox had been showing Monday evening. In addition to the scopes, we handed out some of the now-ubiquitous “solar-glasses,” cardboard glasses with Solar filter material for lenses. These are perfectly safe to use, but I opined that Venus would probably be too small to see with the naked eye. Miss Dorothy proved me wrong shortly, announcing she could see the planet easily.

And so it went for 45-minutes. Unk even managed to get a couple of pictures of the event by the simple means of holding his iPhone camera up to the eyepiece. I knew we would not see the entire event—the Sun would set for our longitude well before the end—but I’d hoped for a little more than we got. Just before six, thunder began to rumble. I walked out to the parking lot and had a look to the north. More clouds. Black clouds. Moving our way. Lightning bolts. I made my way back to the scopes and told Dorothy and Jonathan that it was about time to pack it in. they agreed. The hot sun, when it was out, and the constant wind conspired to spell h-a-v-e h-a-d e-n-o-u-g-h for us, anyway.

Miss D. and I had Eloise back in the truck in one quick trip and had just pulled out of the parking lot when it began to sprinkle. Not long after that, right before we got back to Highway 98, the bottom fell out with torrential rain and high winds.Talk about good timing. On the way home we stopped at Tacky Jack’s on the Causeway for some seafood for me and D., some “sarsaparillas” for Unk, and a little note-comparing. We’d had a great time, seen plenty of the transit if not as much as we’d have liked, Eloise had done well, and the public had been overjoyed with the big show. What more can you ask?

So where does that leave me and Mr. Sun, muchachos? I intend to get Eloise out into the front yard and have a look at the Sun more often. Will I follow through on that? We’ll see. Pat has just returned from this year’s RTMC Expo (née “Riverside Telescope Makers’ Conference”), and he tells me he was bowled over by Lunt's new and (relatively) inexpensive 35mm hydrogen-alpha telescope. Hmm… If I had an h-a scope, that might really spur my Solar observing. On the other hand, Unk, as you know, is a cheapskate so we will see.

Next Time: The Thrilla in Possum Swamp…

Talk about an obsession? My love affair with Miss Sun began in 1999 when I discovered the miracle of Baader AstoSolar Saftey Film at RTMC.
My relationship grew when I was bequeathed the Telescopes in Education H-alpha telescope in 2004.

The relationship became a committed marriage when I as assigned to be a new data analyst (telecope aoperator) on the 60 Foot Solar Tower at Mt. Wilson. But after a month, the marriage did not work out and it was annulled by management.

But I do carry on an informal affair with Miss Sun as I continue to put her on display at daytime solar astronomy outreach gigs all over Los Angeles county. Light pollution is not a factor, a big plus. I can show her charms, the Photosphere and Chromosphere, in full glory.

"Hey Miss Sun, what could I say, I tried to hold you but the Moon got in the way..." Boz Scaggs, "Miss Sun"
hope your not getting flooded out, the transit here was a bust clouds , I should have stayed at work it cleared after I left at 5, one of the guys I work with brought his BINO-mite sun binoculars to work and watched the transit from our mock up control tower ! I caught the first transit in the early 2000's
I would have been nice to have seen 2 !
That restaurant you posted in your blog has a great menu.
We don't get that down home southern style cooking up here in jersey what a shame.
Clear Sky's and keep on blogging
Cloudy Night Classic Telescope Forum.
Excellent account, Uncle Rod. We watched the transit from our roof with my C5+ and Thousand Oaks filter, then with SO's Zeiss "sunglasses" she had kept from the eclipse in Hawaii in the last century. At 200x and in what seemed to be fairly good seeing there was no atmosphere glow and no black drop. In the eclipse glasses, Venus was not just a dot but a disk, so it seemed.

Just update to DS2011, might be time for you to review it again. I've been using DS since 95 and now with Ceil 3.x and virtual Moon atlas it makes a very nice system for pretty cheap.
Hi from Paris, France!!
Hope you will join the red side!! Observing in Ha is beeing surprised at each session (a bit like reading your blog each Sunday ;-)). No worry with light pollution.
Day observing is also much easier to share with people passing by or with my students. Discovering a red sun with proms and wirpools on the surface is great vision and a good starting point for some to deeper in the sky.


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