Transit of Venus From Stone Mountain!
The previous week, as the date approached, the weather looked good for Tuesday June, 5th. However come Sunday and Monday the weather looked worse and worse. A few volunteers contacted me to cancel. They were going to clear skies elsewhere to see the transit. I, however, was going to Stone Mountain. I was committed to that event as its organizer and having seen the transit in 2004 from Ohio I was willing to sacrifice the view this time around to have a Atlanta Astronomy Club presence at the event in Stone Mountain park.
The couple of weeks leading up to the transit were busy ones. The yard went uncut, laundry was stacking up, and the day to day house cleaning all took a backseat to preparing for the transit. I had club supplies to gather and print, scopes to ready, solar filters to build, cameras and filters to test, signs to make, trial runs to perform, logistics at the park to work out, and sadly a funeral service to attend.
By Friday evening all was pretty much set. Volunteers were on the list and we had 28 scopes planned to be at the event. Saturday would see Misty and me at Stone Mountain with Johnathan Justice, PR for the park, getting the lay of the land and finalizing the arrival and departure logistics. We would be asking all to carry quite a bit of stuff up the mountain and that needed to be coordinated and ironed out. All that set, we headed home to clean house for family coming to visit for the transit.
The weather on Saturday was beautiful, 100% clear all day. It would have been a perfect day for the transit although a little cool on the mountain. Sunday would see the weather starting to get worse, and Monday it was raining all day, but started to clear in the afternoon. The forecast for Tuesday was to be cloudy during the day but clearing around 6pm. Perfect! Monday afternoon I packed up all my equipment which included (but was not limited to):
· 10 inch Orion Dobsonian
· 80mm Orion Shorttube 80 on Nexstar GT mount.
· A borrowed Coronado solar scope
· Battery power supply
· A 2x2x2 box of hand outs to give the public
· My eyepiece case
· Two stools
· A homemade solar filter for my Sony DSLR
· My Sony DSLR and lenses
· And cooler full of snacks and water (packed on Tuesday)
· Some foam board sun-blocks I made for my scopes (never used them though)
· Container to put most of that in
· Two fold up chairs
· And a 2×4 yellow wagon to haul it all up the Mountain in.
Tuesday was finally here and with it were the clouds. Although the forecast still looked ok for the afternoon it was not a good feeling seeing a lack of blue outside throughout the day. I started getting calls and emails from volunteers that were going elsewhere to try to improve their chances. By noon the forecast looked dreadful. My brother, Trey, and I finished packing up the car and spent the rest of the time watching the weather channel, visiting every weather site we could, and doing anything to look for a glimpse of good news. 2pm arrived and soon after my wife, Misty, got home early from work. We were soon on our way to Stone Mountain.
Arriving soon after 3:30 pm we unloaded the van, packed everything into the wagon, with Misty and Trey stilling having to carry a few things, and headed to the Sky Lift. Everything loaded on the Sky Lift we began getting strange looks from the other guest boarding the lift. You could tell they wanted to ask what we were doing heading to the top with what looked like a cannon and the supplies necessary to use it! We told them about the transit and about the club, but were soon interrupted by a wonderful narration for the ride up the mountain.
Arriving at the top found us in cooler weather; and just a few hundred feet closer to the motionless cloud layer above us. We stopped inside the middle of the building and setup an information booth with Atlanta Astronomy Club handouts and membership applications, then were on our way outside to find a place to setup. On the way we ran into Marie Lott, Tim Lott, and Brigitte Fessele. We found a nice level spot on the tip top of the mountain and began setting up the scope and arranging everything. While I setup, Trey walked the top and got lots of great pictures of the view, and more volunteers arrived and setup.
I was pleasantly surprised by the numbers who were already on-site waiting for views, even though it was cloudy and the transit was still 2+ hours away. Once setup, I walked around and talked to a few of them, mostly about the weather and whether or not we thought it would clear. About an hour after arriving and setting up it started getting busy; we were handing out Solar viewing glass, most of which Marie got from the Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project. I started to try to point my scopes toward the sun, preparing to be ready for views through the occasional sucker hole I was hoping we would get. This proved to be a futile task. It is hard enough to aim a scope at the sun accurately without the use of a finder scope, let alone when the sun is blocked by clouds. I had a full aperture (12 inch) Glass filter from Orion on my 10 inch Dob, and a Baader white light filter on my 80mm. The for the 80mm scope I also added a red filter to the eyepiece to give the Sun an orange color. In addition to this I had built a solar filter for my camera and had it ready to manually point at the Sun to get shots, I had planned to mount it on the smaller scope but there was no way I would have been able to manage the Dob and take pictures with the other scope.
Around this time, 30 or so minutes before the transit start time, Ken Cook from Fox 5 Atlanta’s weather team arrived and begun interviewing and filming the guest. I introduced myself and we spoke briefly. A few minutes later a young girl told me she was upset because the weather said it was going to be partly cloudy. I pointed at Ken and told her “he is the weather man go blame him”. Without a delay she ran over to him, while I watched laughing to myself at what I was sure was going to be a funny situation to put them both in. When to my horror I hear her say as she turns and points to me “He said to blame you for the bad weather!” I averted my eyes and pretended to adjust my scope, which wasn’t actually pointed at anything. Ken just laughed it off, I am sure he gets that a lot.
I soon realized the volume of people that were up there with us as the clock rolled to 5:45, and remember saying to Misty, Trey and Marie to prepare for a stampede at the slightest opening in the clouds, should there ever be one. 15 minutes to the transit and still no sign of clearing, I started preparing to deal with a disappointed public, while trying to save a little hope for a clearing.
Ten minutes before the transit was to begin the sun popped thru the clouds just long enough for us to fix our scopes on it. The crowd began to approach the scopes in anticipation, lines started to form, there was a mad dash to get the solar glasses we were handing out, and then it happened. A hole opened in the sky, people started looking through the scopes, Wow’s could be heard around and the transit had not even begun. One minute before the transit was to begin the clouds parted and then soon after faded away almost entirely! As if one cue Venus made the slightest dent in the side of the sun. First Contact had been made, it had begun!
A few minutes in, when Venus was about halfway into the sun, Ken Cook asked to record an interview with me for the 10 o’clock news. I spoke to him for a few minutes about the club, what to expect to see and where Venus was at that moment. He had not realized it had started already at this point. When the interview was over I got back to my scope, which Misty had taken over for me, just in time for second contact when Venus was just about to cross 100% into the sun.
The next hour is a blur of smiling faces at the scope, the sun through my camera lens, people taking pictures of us at the scopes, Misty handing out solar glasses, Trey helping others at my little scope, news interviews, views through the scope, and a couple of clouds moving in front of the sun here and there, and of course Venus march ever so slowly across the Sun’s surface. How often do you get to see something in space through a telescope move? What an experience!
I did make one mistake. But it turned out to be a mistake I hope to make again and one that brought additional excitement to those in attendance, as how often would they be able to take home their very own picture of the transit. During a small gap in the line, I took out my iPhone, held the camera lens up to the eyepiece and snapped a pretty decent image. This small, quick action did not go unnoticed by the hundreds of people standing around texting, facebooking, talking, and tweeting about the transit from their smartphones. After the first two people held up the line trying to do the same, I began taking their phones from them and snapping the pictures for them myself. I got darn good at it too! iPhones, Android, Blackberry, regular cell phones, and even some point a shoot cameras, I figured out pretty quickly how to take the best image and keep the line moving. Right when I started to worry that this was slowing down the line a little and keeping people from getting views, I noticed about 90 percent of the people in line had their cell phones out a ready to get their own picture! And everyone did. It was like this the rest of the evening and quite an experience.
By this point it is approaching 7:30 and I kept pointing out to Trey and Misty the Sky lifts coming up the mountain every 10 mins. They are packed full with people pressed up against the glass! More and more people kept coming as if they were waiting at the bottom in case the sky
cleared and once it did they headed up the mountain. People were still coming up the hiking trail too. It was not until 8 or so that the crown started to die down. Around 8:15 it began getting cloudy again and by 8:30 it was pretty much over. We packed up all that we had brought minus 95% of the handout materials which had been taken; all the solar glasses were gone. Marie brought 300 pairs, I had 50 Pairs and a few others had given out about another 50 to 100 pairs. We estimate 500 to 700 if not more people were up there.
By 9 o’clock we had everything down the mountain and back into the van, the sun had set and the transit was over. Our feet were killing us, our throats were raw, our backs hurt, we were hungry, tired, had to pee, and probably dehydrated, but we decided to stay and see the firework spectacular at 9:30. The show was good and they have made a lot of improvements but I do miss the lasers flying over the heads of the crowd. The transit was over but the night’s astronomy events had not quite finished with us. Toward the end of the firework show about half way through the national anthem a small but bright light popped out from behind the top of the mountain. It moved slowly but steadily towards the north and east. It looked unlike a airplane and was totally unexpected. The International Space Station was flying over! It looked, and was later confirmed, to be around -3 magnitude; slightly dimmer than Venus had been just a few weeks ago when its journey toward the sun began.
It was a perfect end to a truly wonderful event!