Wednesday, June 6, 2012

My adventure with the Venus Transit

Taken by Amy McQuillan in Oxfordshire UK at sunrise
On June 5th and June 6th Venus made its last transit across the Sun as seen from the Earth for over 100 years; the next time that the planets are aligned like this again will not be until 2117. 

The transit of Venus has previously impacted science in profound ways and in 1769 it sparked true international scientific collaboration. This year many people around the world set out to observe the transit, however, if like me that was not as possible as you would have liked, all efforts went to getting other people excited about it and the possibility of that one glimpse.

The Venus transit started at 22:09 GMT on June 5th. Now those among you who noted the use of GMT will realise that I am in the UK and unfortunately at this time the Sun has already set below the horizon. But, that does not mean that the party must come to an end, because as the Sun rises in the morning, at roughly 05:02, the Transit will still be in progress and you can see the egress (Venus leaving the Suns disc) from the UK. 

Over the past few weeks I had been attempting to get the University of Exeter Astrophysics group interested in the last in a lifetime event. We had settled on a plan to head out to Haytor in Dartmoor national park and wait for the sunrise with a BBQ and joviality. With one car between us, taking the telescopes binoculars and BBQ, and the Queens Jubilee weekend stopping the Bus services; the journey involved a train to Newton Abbot, a 3 hour hike to Haytor, and an all-nighter out on the moor. A journey that a lot of you would think was insane, and you would be right. But, I managed to get a group of us to agree to my crazy plans and we were all set to go. The weather had other plans!

Unfortunately our good old British optimism did not appease Mother Nature and she opened up the heavens thwarting our attempts before we could even start. 

“It’s time for plan B. We have a plan B? No… but it’s time for one.”

 Plan B: Have the BBQ at home, watch all the live feeds from around the world on the TV and wait until morning in a hope that we can see it from the top of the Physics tower as the sun rises. With the party underway we sat excitedly in front of the TV as Venus made its way in front of the Sun enjoying images from Mauna Kea in Hawaii, Mount Wilson in California, and TromsΓΈ in Norway.

Those with cars were still determined to go ahead with the original plan and headed out to Dartmoor, while I made my way back to the department to watch the live footage from around the world throughout the night. One group was heading up to Dartmoor in the morning before sunrise and I gladly accepted a spare space in their car. With my solar glasses, camera, and binoculars is quickly made my way to the top of Haytor.

There were distinct gaps in the cloud just above the horizon towards the rising sun and the sky was getting brighter very quickly. There was a strong wind that carried rainclouds from the west soaking us as we waited patiently for that one glimpse. I wish this story had a better ending for you, but I am sad to say that the gap in the cloud never quite reached the horizon and Venus was gone by the time the Sun came into view. But I can tell you this. It was fantastic! 
I was following twitter all night and hearing the stories from friends and strangers about their own adventures to see the transit, be that in the UK valiantly getting up at sunrise to hope the weather holds out, or across the world on the top of a mountain or just out in the garden, filled me with such joy. The sky is a beautiful place and there is no limit to the wonders it can show us. 

And remember if you missed this one maybe biologists can give us something so that we can live to see the next one. Or we could just wait for Mercury in 2016  
My view of the sunrise from Haytor in Dartmoor national park

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