Thus Passes Venus: A Lesson in How to Handle Your Binoculars
This is probably a good time to make this confession, before I get to the meat of the article: Astronomy terrifies me. I don’t just mean that I get nervous when I think about zipping on a space suit and going into orbit 240 miles above the Earth, which I do. Like, I’m afraid of planets. I feel a bit of vertigo if I’m browsing through Wikipedia pages on the solar system for too long. Star-gazing takes intense, simultaneous concentration on both the object in my viewfinder and the solid ground underneath my feet. I’m also afraid of the dark. So, naturally, I’ve been drawn to space like a moth to an open flame since I was old enough to grab books off the library shelf and appreciate The Magic School Bus. Some kids like to get scared by watching A Nightmare on Elm Street. When I was eight, I liked to scare myself by staring at the Voyager satellite photographs of planet Jupiter. Fear is an emotion that comes from apprehension about something unknown, and I was a little concerned about this ginormous ball of orange-streaked gas hurtling through space. Jupiter was something that I would never touch or even see for myself in person, but it was an irrefutable fact about a solar system that would continue to do its own thing whether I was paying attention to it or not. Jupiter was out there, guys. Jupiter was coming to eat me.
This brings me to the year 2012 and the transit of Venus. As a less fearful and more rational adult, I decided to try some astronomy and see the June transit with my own two eyes after writing about it for last week’s Science Sunday. Since a Venus-Sun transit is a rare but predictable event, technically I’ve had my entire life to get ready for the two in 2004 and 2012, but I didn’t even know what a transit of Venus was until maybe three weeks ago. I missed the 2004 one so completely that I wasn’t even aware that it had happened. I could barely remember the last time I had tried digging out my ancient star map for some recreational astronomy, so I began by looking up how-to articles on the Internet written by kind experts who are willing to share their expertise. My heart wasn’t really that into it at first, I didn’t seriously think that this was something that I would be able to do. I didn’t own a telescope and it was too late to try and purchase a cheap pair of eclipse Sun shades. Then I came across this video where a physicist named Paul Doherty explains how to project a magnified view of the Sun onto a white sheet using a pair of binoculars, a tripod, and a piece of cardboard:
Wait, wait, wait, I thought. I’m living with someone who owns a good pair of binoculars.
I got permission to go dig them out of a cabinet and discovered that the binoculars also came, conveniently enough, with their own tripod. I looked in the kitchen and found a cardboard cereal box. I ripped the box apart and cut out a pair of holes in the largest piece of cardboard so it would fit over the binocular lenses. I took the next largest piece and taped two pieces of plain, white computer paper to the front. I had shade, a screen, and a way to magnify the Sun’s image. My handiwork was pretty okay. I could give this a shot.
A series of rainy and sunless days kept me from testing the setup without Venus. The morning of the transit was no better. I woke up to a small drizzle and overcast skies. There was not a drop of direct sunlight to be seen. I wasn’t upset or disappointed. I figured there was no sense in getting myself worked up over missing a twice-every-two-hundred-some-odd-years event because of uncontrollable bad weather. I did get to see the once-every-4000-years fly-by of comet Hale-Bopp when I was younger, that probably counted as enough rare astronomy for one lifetime, right? Still, I spent most of the day keeping my eye on the state of things outside and took some time to get the tripod, binoculars, and cardboard set and ready by the door. When the time for the transit arrived, I made myself a bit of dinner and stood looking out the kitchen window as I chewed on a slice of quesadilla. I suddenly realized that the Sun was shining through a small patch in the clouds. I kept eating and watched as the Sun was eventually covered, again, by the slow-moving clouds. At this point, it occurred to me that I might have just watched my only chance at seeing the transit go by. I had chosen fried cheese over a good five minutes of astronomical wonder and couldn’t make up my mind about if I was okay with that or not.
I went outside and looked up. The Sun was still covered by clouds, but there was also a very clear, very large patch of very blue sky not too far away. I decided that I could probably catch this hole if it passed over the Sun. By the time I had dragged out the tripod, the clouds had moved and the large patch was now a solid swatch of sky. It was almost an hour into the transit. I positioned the binoculars and pointed the uncapped eyepiece at my makeshift computer paper projection screen, propped up against the side of the building about three feet away. The sun came out and I adjusted everything so that the shadow cast by the cardboard shield covered the screen.
Nothing happened. There was nothing in the shadow.
I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. My first thought was that the binoculars weren’t powerful enough, but I hadn’t read anything that said you needed a specific type of binoculars to make the solar projection work. I nervously watched the YouTube video again to make sure I had pointed the right pair of lenses at the sky and the right pair at the screen. I had: objective at the sky, eyepiece at the screen, right, got it. I moved the tripod closer and adjusted the angle. Still nothing.
I held my hand up to the eyepiece. No light seemed to be spilling through, which didn’t make sense to me. There should have been something. I carried the tripod right up to the side of the building. The same shadow was cast on the wall. I took the binoculars and started wiggling them. Two circles of light streaked across the shadow. A-hah. I kept adjusting until the circles came back into view.
Science WORKS?! What the WHAT?!
I realized my big mistake: I had taken for granted that even though sunlight appears to be everywhere during the day, the sun itself is a single astronomical object in the sky that needs to be found in the objective lens, just like the moon or any other star that you want to see in the sky at night. Now I could remember the time I spent, when I was in elementary school, making careful, patient adjustments to a toy telescope so I could find the moon. I was out of practice.
I don’t know why I was stunned. There was the sun, two images of it, sitting in the shade on the wall. I capped one of the binocular lenses to block the second projection. The remaining one was yellow-orange and very bright. What astonished me the most was that it looked like a projection of a three-dimensional object. I could see sunspots for crying out loud. The most amazing thing was the black circle sitting in the lower right portion of the sphere. That was Venus. Wicked. The dreary weather had dissipated into a completely bright, cloudless late afternoon, so I got to watch the transit until sunset.
I snapped my last photographs of the Sun covered by tree branches and packed in for the night. Later, I tuned into the Sun-Earth Day webcast to see some of the live filming of NASA EDGE at Mauna Kea, Hawaii. NASA EDGE was a nice surprise. Tuning into the webcast was kind of like tuning into the Super Bowl, if the Super Bowl was six hours long, not about football, and viewing it required coordinating giant cameras around the world pointed at outer space. The webcast showed live images of the transit inter-cut with interviews, sketches, and shooting the breeze about the transit, planetary science, and NASA.
Not to mention this guy’s awesome hat:
Numerous eyes were on the sky during the two days that the transit took place, including the big guns in the observatory world, like NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), the Hubble Space Telescope, and NASA/JAXA’S Hinode. These are satellites, NASA calls them “missions,” that have been sent into orbit and routinely collect data for astronomers and other scientists on Earth. Hinode and SDO, launched in September 2006 and February 2010 respectively, are Sun-specific missions. Unlike your eyes, their instruments were built to stare at the Sun and gather information on its magnetic, atmospheric, and radiant conditions. That’s how we got beautiful images of the 2012 transit of Venus like this one:
And stunning videos that show the transit in real time, like this one:
And this one:
So, that’s that, then. The transit of Venus is done for another 121.5 years. In the meantime, the Sun’s not going anywhere and neither is Venus. The Sun is an important component of our solar neighborhood and a tremendous source of energy. Venus is a planet that’s similar in size to Earth but its surface is horribly inhospitable and counterproductive to developing life. We can still use them to gain a better understanding of our solar system and use that knowledge as a blueprint for studying others. The Universe keeps moving on.
Header image from Space.com’s transit of Venus gallery, image credit NASA/SDO, AIA. Please take a moment to appreciate how the Sun at 193 Angstroms totally goes with Teen Skepchick’s color theme.