There's a big black spot on the sun today ... (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Wed, 06 Jun 2012

There's a big black spot on the sun today ...

[Transit of Venus, June 5 2012] After a heart-stopping day of rain on Monday, Tuesday, the day of the Venus transit astronomers have been anticipating for decades, dawned mostly clear.

For the 3 pm ingress, Dave and I set up in the backyard -- a 4.5-inch Newtonian, a Takahashi FS102, and an 80mm f/6 refractor with an eyepiece projection camera mount. I'd disliked the distraction during the annular eclipse of switching between eyepiece and camera mount, and was looking forward to having a dedicated camera scope this time.

Venus is big! There wasn't any trouble seeing it once it started its transit. I was surprised at how slowly it moved -- so much slower than a Mercury transit, though it shouldn't have been a surprise, since I knew the event would take the rest of the evening, and wouldn't be finished until well past our local sunset.

The big challenge of the day was to see the aureole -- the arc of Venus' atmosphere standing out from the sun. With the severely windy weather and turbulent air (lots of cumulus clouds) I wasn't hopeful. But as Venus reached the point where only about 1/3 of its disk remained outside the sun, the aureole became visible as a faint arc. We couldn't see it in the 4.5-inch, and it definitely isn't visible in the poorly-focused photos from the 80mm, but in the FS102 it was definitely there.

About those poorly focused pictures: I hadn't used the 80mm, an Orion Express, for photography before. It turned out its 2-inch Crayford focuser, so nice for visual use, couldn't hold the weight of a camera. With the sun high overhead, as soon as I focused, the focuser tube would start to slide downward and I couldn't lock it. I got a few shots through the 80mm, but had better luck holding a point-and-shoot camera to the eyepiece of the FS102.

Time for experiments

[Binocular projection of Venus transit] Once the excitement of ingress was over, there was time to try some experiments. I'd written about binocular projection as a way anyone, without special equipment, could watch the transit; so I wanted to make sure that worked. I held my cheap binoc (purchased for $35 many years ago at Big 5) steady on top of a tripod -- I never have gotten around to making a tripod mount for it; though if I'd wanted a more permanent setup, duct tape would have worked.

I couldn't see much projecting against the ground, and it was too windy to put a piece of paper or cardboard down, but an old whiteboard made a perfect solar projection screen. There was n trouble at all seeing Venus and some of the larger sunspots projected onto the whiteboard.

As the transit went on, we settled down to a routine of popping outside the office every now and then to check on the transit. Very civilized. But the transit lasted until past sunset, and our western horizon is blocked by buildings. I wanted some sunset shots. So we took a break for dinner, then drove up into the hills to look for a place with a good ocean view.

The sunset expedition

Our first idea, a pullout off Highway 9, had looked promising in Google Earth but turned out to have trees and a hill (that somehow hadn't shown up in Google Earth) blocking the sunset. So back up highway 9 and over to Russian Ridge, where I remembered a trail entrance on the western side of the ridge that might serve. Sure enough, it gave us a great sunset view. There was only parking space for one car, but fortunately that's all we needed. And we weren't the only transit watchers there -- someone else had hiked in from the main parking lot carrying a solar filter, so we joined him on the hillside as we waited for sunset.

[Mak 90 with solar filter] I'd brought the 80mm refractor for visual observing and the 90 Mak for camerawork. I didn't have a filter for the Mak, but Dave had some Baader solar film, so earlier in the afternoon I'd whipped up a filter. A Baskin-Robbins ice cream container lid turned out to be the perfect size. Well, almost perfect -- it was just a trifle too large, but some pads cut from an old mouse pad and taped inside the lid made it fit perfectly. Dave used the Baader film, some foam and masking tape to make a couple of filters for his binocular.

The sun sank through a series of marine cloud layers. Through the scopes it looked more like Jupiter than the sun, with Jupiter's banding -- and Venus' silhouette even looked like the shadow of one of Jupiter's moons.

[off-axis aperture stops from ice cream containers] Finally the sun got so low, and so obscured by clouds, that it seemed safe to take the solar filter off the 90mm camera rig. (Of course, we kept the solar filters on the other scope and binocular for visual observing.) But even at the camera's fastest shutter speed, 1/4000, the sun came out vastly overexposed with 90mm of aperture feeding it at f/5.6.

I had suspected that might be a problem, so I'd prepared a couple of off-axis stops for the Mak, to cover most of the aperture leaving only a small hole open. Again, BR ice cream containers turned out to be perfect. I painted the insides flat black to eliminate reflections, then cut holes in the ends -- one about the size of a quarter, the other quite a bit larger. It turned out I didn't use the larger stop at all, and it would have been handy to have one smaller than the quarter-sized one -- even with that stop, the sun was overexposed at first even at 1/4000 and I had to go back to the solar filter for a while.

[Venus transit at sunset] [Venus transit at sunset] I was happy with the results, though -- I got a nice series of sunset photos complete with Venus silhouette.

More clouds rolled in as we packed up, providing a gorgeous blue-and-pink sunset sky backdrop for our short walk back to the car. What a lovely day for such a rare celestial event!

Photos here: Venus Transit, June 5 2012.

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[ 11:48 Jun 06, 2012    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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