Venus Transit Retro-Blog: Transit Day, Part 2

John A. Burns Way — the road to Mauna Kea‘s summit

With the Transit well underway, it was a perfect time to visit the summit. Our group had organized several runs to the summit, making it easy to plan the day around key Transit times. The road to the summit is rough, and doesn’t allow for a comfortable ride.  But the hairpin turns reveal some spectacular vistas. With someone else driving, you’re free to look out the windows and take in the views.

The weather system that had threatened us with snow had taken a detour to the north of the Big Island, but it left high winds at the summit. Only a few groups, such as those providing video feeds for the VIS and the NASA Edge webcast, had bothered to set up telescopes behind the few available windbreaks.

Observing teams on the summit ridge

Mauna Kea’s observatories are on several ridges below the true summit, a cinder cone topping out at 13,796 feet above sea level. At that altitude, the air pressure is 60% of sea level pressure. Some people do have problems with altitude sickness on the summit, and everybody notices the reduced oxygen levels. Once I arrived at the summit, I quickly noticed my reduced stamina, but it took a little bit longer to notice more subtle effects. For example, at one point, I snarled my camera strap. It took an absurd amount to time to sort it out — I recall thinking, “This shouldn’t be so complicated!”  Of course, it wouldn’t have been so complicated at sea level.

I’d brought a cheap pulse-oximeter with me  so I could get a sense of what was happening in my innards. The readings probably weren’t all that accurate, but they were interesting. Arriving at the summit, still in my seat, I was reading a pulse of 90 beats per minute, and 83% oxygen saturation. Just getting out of the van, my pulse shot up to 134 beats per minute, with oxygen saturation at 82%. The thin air makes quite a difference.

Within about 15 minutes, the readings were at more respectable values of 80 beats per minute and 85%.  I found I had to walk slowly and deliberately, and pay attention to my breathing.  Otherwise, I didn’t find the summit too difficult to handle, so I could enjoy the visit and marvel at being in the midst of some of the world’s finest observatories.

A few people noticed me using my pulse-oximeter. I was soon in the midst of a small crowd of curious people, all interested in trying out my gadget. It turned out to be quite an ice-breaker!

From left to right: NASA Infrared Telescope Facility, Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, Gemini North, University of Hawaii 2.2m Telescope, UK Infrared Telescope, University of Hawaii 0.9m Educational Telescope

All too soon, it was time to go back down to the VIS. On the other hand, it was also time to start thinking about observing the last phases of the 2012 Transit of Venus.

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Venus Transit Retro-Blog: Transit Day, Part 1

2012 June 05 — The day of the 2012 Transit of Venus

Oddly enough for me, I was up at dawn that morning. As I’d posted that morning, the weather seemed to be cooperating. Certainly the view from my hotel balcony was encouraging.

Observers fill the VIS parking lot, waiting for the Transit of Venus to start. The gabled building behind the canopy is part of the staff residence complex

Our Sky and Telescope Transit of Venus group traveled to the Visitor Information Station (the “VIS”) on Mauna Kea in nine separate vans. By 10:30 my van arrived at the VIS. Parking was already becoming a problem, but our group’s “headquarters” area was outside the staff residence complex for the observatories. That’s just a short distance uphill from the VIS, so there was plenty of time to find a spot and set up.

At 9200 feet, we’re well above the cloud deck

The VIS is 9200 feet above sea level. At that altitude, the air pressure is about 73% of its sea level value. Getting out of the van, just walking took more effort than I’d imagined, even though I’d known what to expect. Some things have to be experienced — thinking it through just doesn’t quite do it.

Preparation does help, though. I’d been advised to walk slowly and to pay attention to breathing deeply.  It worked well, and I soon found that I hardly noticed the thinner air. Most of the time, anyway. Walking uphill from the VIS reminded me where I was. Pride cometh before the gasping wheeze!

By noon, most people I could see were either peering through their own telescopes or binoculars, or clustered around the public telescopes with projection viewers. There was a strong, somewhat gusty wind that jostled my telescope, but the Sun’s image was crisp, with a sharp limb and vivid sunspots.

Observers using hydrogen-α filters could see Venus move in front of the Sun’s chromosphere, invisible to white-light observers like me. It gave us a bit of advance notice of First Contact — about half a minute, as it turned out.

My first view of the 2012 Venus Transit was a tiny notch in the Sun’s limb. Over the next dozen minutes, I watched as Venus slowly moved into the Sun’s disc. When Venus was perhaps 80% of the way across the Sun’s limb, I saw a faint grey edge around the “space side” of Venus. It wavered, and didn’t form a complete circular arc, but I’m certain I saw the famous aureole of Venus.

Just before Second Contact, I looked carefully for infamous black drop effect. I didn’t see anything like the threads and tear-drops described in journals from the 1761 and 1769 expeditions, but I noticed some faint blurring of the trailing edge of Venus as it moved across the limb. Judging by comments from nearby observers, most of us saw only mild versions of the black drop effect.

The Sun before and after Venus’s ingress

By 12:30, Venus had completely crossed the limb, and I got a few photos for keepsakes. This was a great time to wander around the observing area, look at projected images of the Sun and Venus, take a few peeks through other ‘scopes, and generally share the experience with other astronomers. For the next few hours, I took the opportunity to mingle, see terrestrial sights, and take frequent peeks at Venus crossing the Sun.

You can find more photos from Transit Day here.

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Venus Transit Retro-Blog: Transit Day Minus 1

Morning coffee and a gorgeous view!

2012 June 04. The Sky and Telescope Transit of Venus group had converged at Waikoloa Beach. The reception the night before had been a lot more enjoyable than I’d have imagined: good food, good conversation, and dark, lovely skies. This was the day to get the details sorted out — as much as possible, anyway.

As I mentioned at the time, the weather forecast wasn’t encouraging. Still, we had better odds than at most other locations. Most of us seemed willing to just deal with whatever happened. It’s not surprising, really. Any astronomer who was interested enough to make the trip had likely been bitten by weather before. Besides, what can you do?

Everyone’s happier when the clouds clear out.

The obvious answer? Unpack your gear and check out your equipment. An impromptu solar observing party broke out on a hotel lawn. Oddly enough, nobody else wandered by to see what we were doing. Perhaps it was the laid-back Hawaiian politeness I’d already noticed. Or, perhaps so many eager astronomy enthusiasts seemed like the wrong party to crash. In any case, it was nice to be in an observing group without having to put on my astronomy educator hat.

That was another great pleasure of my Transit trip. Yes,  I really enjoy astronomy outreach and being an educator. Even so, every now and then, it’s a refreshing change to just be an observer. Oh, and being in Hawaii wasn’t too hard to take, either! 🙂

The Centaur and The Southern Cross (Image made with Starry Night, copyright Curriculum Simulation Corp)

That night, after a great dinner with some fellow Transit Travelers, I had another splendid treat. Walking back to the hotel, I saw Alpha and Beta Centauri and the Southern Cross for the first time. The simulation to the right just doesn’t do justice to that magnificent sight. It was one of many on this trip, but a wonderful experience nonetheless.




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Venus Transit Retro-Blog: On to the Big Island

My interlude in Honolulu was a great kickoff to my Transit trip, as well as a chance to get my body-clock a little more in sync with Hawaii’s GMT-10 time zone. I’d collapsed into a bed right after getting into Honolulu, and it was probably the best thing I could have done.

Honolulu’s airport offers spectacular views

Honolulu has one of the prettiest airport locales you could imagine. Big picture windows looking onto the Ko’olau Mountains make a flight delay (a bit) less dreary. Once we got off the ground, the short trip to the Big Island was sort of thing that gives birth to cliches. Throwing every bit of pride to one side, I aimed a small camera out the window. No doubt I looked like a goggling rube, but I got some great shots of the Hawaiian Islands from the air.

Solidified lava in the foreground, and a shield volcano in the background

While Honolulu’s airport is in lovely surroundings, only a geologist could admire the countryside around Kona International Airport.  The former lava is still black and cracked, and it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the devastation that the live lava must have left behind.

The drive to my hotel at Waikoloa Beach verged on the surreal. Long stretches of road cut through black volcanic rock, relieved only by sparse patches of a local grass and graffiti made with shards of white coral. It’s gentle graffiti, compared to the usual North American stuff. (“I ♥ hockey” did seem odd for Hawaii!) Then, all at once, the lava gave way to a stand of green shrubs. It went back and forth that way for the whole trip, until the oasis of the resort area appeared on the horizon.

As I walked into the hotel to check in, I discovered the entire lobby opened toward the sea. The clouds had broken up, and standing at the front desk, I looked out past a wide lanai that revealed Anaeho’omalu Bay glittering in the sunlight.

Here’s a set of photos of the area around the hotel.

Looking out onto Anaeho’omalu Bay from the lobby’s lanai

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Venus Transit Retro-Blog: Pearl Harbor

If you have even the slightest interest in naval history, Honolulu implies Pearl Harbor.  A casual look at the city road map  hints at Honolulu’s rich  history,  and there are  naval-based street names scattered throughout the city. I thought it only fitting that the Nimitz Highway takes you from Waikiki to Pearl Harbor.

Historical treasures lie beyond this sign

Pearl Harbor is an active naval base, mostly off limits to civilian visitors, but there are vast public areas dotted with  monuments, exhibits, and museums. It could take days to do any justice to this incredible historical preserve. With only limited time available, I decided I’d focus on one or two areas in detail. Blasting through the whole place in half a day might give you bragging rights, but you’d get more out of buying an armload of postcards at the gift shop.

You can make a very good argument that submarines came of age during World War II, so I was most interested in the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum. It’s centered around the wonderfully restored and maintained USS Bowfin (SS 287), an early Balao-class fleet submarine. Most of the submarine is open to visitors. There were a few off-limits areas I’d have loved to have explored. But, I’ve been a museum educator for 20 years, and I’ve learned there are areas you just have to rope off. (Sigh!)

USS Bowfin (SS 287) In the foreground is a section of the Memorial Circle

A fleet submarine’s conning tower was actually a secondary  pressure hull.

For example, the access ladder to USS Bowfin’s conning tower is roped off. I see why — I can easily imagine people falling off the ladder and filing lawsuits. To my pleasant surprise, there was a separate exhibit: the conning tower from another Balao-class submarine, USS Parche (SS 384). Since it’s displayed without the enclosing sail, you can see how the conning tower was small pressure hull  grafted on to the main pressure hull. The open-air display also provides plenty of extra room to move around and get good photos.

One advantage of  crossing six time zones is that getting up early was easier than usual for a guy who prefers astronomer’s hours. Getting to Pearl Harbor early in the morning meant I beat the worst of the crowds. During the hours I spent exploring USS Bowfin there weren’t a lot of visitors. That made it a lot easier to take my time, peek into obscure corners, and get a lot of photos. The museum provides an audio guide to the submarine. It seemed to be well done, but I didn’t use it much. I’d done a lot of research on World War II US fleet submarines, and the guide didn’t fit in well with my engineering-driven exploration.

Submarine Rescue Chamber

There’s a tremendous amount of stuff to see on the submarine museum grounds. For a naval history enthusiast, it’s a marvelous experience. For example, here’s a Submarine Rescue Chamber. It looks like a garbage can with an orange lid, but there’s a lot of fascinating history behind it.

Left: USS Missouri; Right: USS Arizona Memorial

The Submarine Museum is on the landward side of an arm of Pearl Harbor.  USS Missouri (BB-63) and the USS Arizona Memorial are on Ford Island, just across that arm. Since Ford Island is part of the active naval base, you the only way for tourists (visitors!) to get there is on shuttle boats operated by the US Navy. I was considering going over to tour USS Missouri, but the crowds waiting for the shuttle boats put me off. Fifteen hours of being sardine-canned into airplanes had left me tired of tightly packed crowds. Fortunately, you can get some incredibly good views of USS Missouri from the Submarine Museum grounds.

I had no particular desire to visit the USS Arizona Memorial. Somehow, it seemed to me like sneaking into a private cemetery. As it turns out, the Memorial is easy to see from the Submarine Museum grounds, and there’s the Memorial Circle just next to USS Bowfin. It’s a beautiful monument, and an ideal place for paying quiet respects.

The Submarine Museum building itself houses a modest museum dedicated to submarine history. Its layout is a bit hap-hazard and the signage is sparse, but it has some remarkable artifacts on display.  There’s a beautifully executed cutaway model of USS Bowfin that really adds to the tour of the boat itself.

By early afternoon — and a beautiful Saturday afternoon at that — the public grounds were getting crowded. I decided against visiting more Pearl Harbor museums, and set out to see a bit more of Honolulu before continuing on to the Big Island and my appointment with the Transit of Venus.

Here’s an assortment of photos of my visit to Pearl Harbor. 

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Venus Transit Retro-Blog: Honolulu

The Sky and Telescope Venus Transit tour base of operations was on Waikoloa Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. To get there from Ottawa, I had to spend at least one night in Honolulu. There’s a simple expression to describe traveling 8000 kilometres, seeing nothing more of Honolulu than a hotel room, then getting back on a plane: bloody silly!

Getting around Honolulu is — interesting. Whoever laid out the streets must have hated right angles. Whoever named the streets must have loved variety: street names seem to mutate faster than the influenza virus. The car GPS navigator I brought with me became my newest, closest friend. One who repeated “Recalculating!” Frequently. Ah , well — we all have our foibles!

Honolulu, with Waikiki Beach somewhere behind the buildings.

Dead-tired after a 15 hour trip, driving a electronic-everything rental car with an automatic transmission has odd implications. My left foot expected to find a clutch pedal. It kept finding a brake pedal instead. All I can say is that Hawaii seems to have the kindest, most tolerant drivers on the entire flippin’ planet. After half a dozen wrong turns (“Recalculating!”) into an interesting part of town and several spine-jarring reminders that my rental car did not have a clutch pedal, my hotel looked like a pleasure palace in Xanadu.

Honolulu skyline from my hotel room balcony

Most of the hotels in Honolulu seem be clustered in Waikiki. Even if you’re not a beach-lover, it’s a cool place. Hey, it’s in Hawaii, after all! Check out some pictures of the neighborhood, made after a few nearly-comatose hours in a nice, comfy bed.

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Retro-Blogging the Transit Trip

The road to Hell is said to be paved with good intentions. I had every intention of posting daily updates on my Transit of Venus expedition. Hmm — could that have been Infernal Flames flickering on my blog-road? Sorting and processing hundreds of photos a day on a netbook proved to be a bit more of a task than I’d imagined.

To be fair to myself, I wasn’t able to post at all on my first two days in Hawaii. The promised in-room internet for my Honolulu hotel wasn’t working, and I suppose getting maintenance done over the weekend isn’t easy anywhere.
So, for anyone interested in after-the-fact blogging, I’ll be posting a series of more detailed missives on my Hawaiian Transit of Venus Trip.

The sun and the disc of  Venus, just after 2nd Contact. photographed from Mauna Kea. The background is a view of Waikoloa Beach, at dawn on Transit Day. Photos and composite graphic © 2012 by Tim Cole All Rights Reserved


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A Little Off the Astronomical Path

This isn’t precisely astronomical in nature, but how can you visit Hawaii and not check out an active volcano? In one sense, you can argue that this ought to be required for anyone interested in planetary astronomy. Looking down at rock younger than I am gives quite an interesting take on the formation of the Moon, for example.

Kilauea has been erupting since 1983, and it’s adding to the Big Island‘s shoreline. Seeing it from the ground was interesting, but seeing it from the air seemed just too cool to pass up. So, I booked a helicopter tour over Kilauea and the countryside around Hilo. I’m sure the other outfits are just as competent, but I liked the idea of a  “doors-off” flight. Why peek through a window when you have another option?

Back on the ground after one incredible flight

I used my regular camera, but I also used a GoPro sports camera on a headstrap to record the flight. The video is going to take some editing to cut out the test shots and dead time, but it’s one cool way to keep a memoir as well as let someone look over your shoulder.

Live, flowing lava from Kilauea

The helicopter tour was billed with the tagline “Feel the Heat.” I figured it was just advertising blurb, but it isn’t. When you’re over the vent and its live lava, it’s like sitting in front of a campfire getting ready to toast marshmallows. There hasn’t been an explosive eruption in Hawaii for decades, but Kilauea more than compensates with its sheer output.

While waiting for my flight,  I had an unexpected treat. Another group was in the waiting area, getting ready for a charter flight to do thermal imaging of the Kilauea area. At a lull in the briefing, I said hello and discovered that I’d bumped into a geologist with the US Geological Survey, who proceeded to give me an absolutely excellent 15-minute “Vulcanology 101″ mini-lecture. He showed me a few live infrared images of the caldera and its surroundings from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory’s thermal imaging equipment. And no, I don’t know who it was! I was too wrapped up in his tutorial to even think of asking his name. Before I could do a business card swap, he and his team were off to the flight line.

Waterfalls just a few miles from the volcanoOne thing that amazed me was the contrast between a volcano blasted landscape and a rain forest. You see that kind of contrast all over the Big Island.  Just driving along a few miles of highway, you can pass through a landscape that might as well be on Mars and then right into a stand of green bushes and flowers. Intellectually, I’ve always expected we’ll find life somewhere off our little planet, but seeing how vegetation springs up in lava fields — well, that bolsters my intellectual hunch in a totally illogical but powerful way.

I’m going to be processing images and videos for weeks, but here are a few stills and video captures from a very, very cool experience.

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More Things on the Bucket List

It’s hard to cap such a wonderful Transit of Venus experience, but visiting Mauna Kea and its observatories has been a personal dream for many years. After the Transit, I spent a few more days in Hawaii. All my contingency plans worked out! In addition to a commercial summit tour (well worth it, incidentally), I got to visit the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and Gemini North. Four summit trips in four days, and I drove myself up for the last one.

A spectacular sunset from the CFHT catwalk.

For anyone thinking of driving to the summit of Mauna Kea – think twice! There’s a reason rental car companies won’t let you take their cars there: the access road eats cars. There’s only one rental agency on Hawaii that will rent you a four-wheel drive truck you can take up to the summit, and it isn’t all that cheap.

While I was driving up, I passed three cars that just died en route. At points, my truck’s engine was screaming at 4500 RPM while barely making 20 to 25 miles per hour. The scenery’s fantastic, but don’t look too long. The narrow, steep, switch-backed road demands your full attention. Fortunately, I attached a GoPro camera to the windshield and recorded the whole trip. I’d also been up three times before, and could resist the urge. (Barely!)

Driving up is almost easy compared to going back down. You can’t use your brakes in any big way. The air’s too thin to cool them properly, and you’d burn them out in minutes – literally. I just tapped the brakes before downshifting to keep from being thrown into the steering wheel.  It’s compression braking all the way, and on the steep sections, speed builds up quickly.

In short, I strongly suggest letting someone else drive while you enjoy the view. I’m glad of the experience, but I was very glad when it was done.

I’m still sorting through thousands of photos, but I have a smattering available for your enjoyment,  plus the required gorgeous sunset shots. Here are some video captures from the drive down to the Visitor Information Station.

Well, now we know we’re on a “hill”

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One Mind-Boggling Transit Day

Well, it’s come and gone for another 105.5 years. And we couldn’t have asked for the day to have worked out any better. Well, we could have, but we’d have had to be daft!

I just saw First and Second Contacts! Can you tell I’m having a good time? 🙂

Even with a stiff breeze at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station, Venus and the limb of the Sun were crisp and vivid. Those of us with white-light filters got a bit of an advance alert on First Contact – the hydrogen-α observers saw Venus enter the chromosphere about half a minute before we did. An intensely scientific poll of a well selected group (i.e. everyone in earshot who gave a damn) revealed that most of us saw some kind of mild black drop effect.

The Transit as viewed from Mauna Kea’s summit

I’m going to state that I saw the famous aureole around the space-side of Venus. It was tiny and hard to see, and it wavered in and out of view, but I tried every trick I’ve come up with to undo the effects of creative eyesight. When I heard another observer I hadn’t even met describe something very similar to my observations, I felt reasonably sure I was seeing something real.

After a trip to the Mauna Kea summit, clouds wrapping around from the low-pressure system that passed just north of the Big Island started to close in on the Visitor Information Station, so our group organizers started checking the alternate sites on our contingency list. The most likely site for observing egress  — the beach behind our hotel. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do, so we toughed it out and went back to a tropical climate zone.

Observing the Transit on a summery Hawaiian day

We endured great hardships for 3rd and 4th Contact

And there you have it, folks. The 2012 Transit of Venus as viewed over 11 (or so) climate zones. In-freaking-credible! :-))

Venus has just cleared the Sun’s limb

Check out a few more photos, with more to come.

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