On June 8, 2004, a rare astronomical event occurred. The planet Venus crossed the disk of the sun, a small dot barely visible to the naked (solar-filter-protected) eye. As the full transit lasted more than five hours, some likened the event to watching paint dry.
It was actually a lot more interesting than that, partly because the last
time it happened was in 1882. In those days it was a really big deal,
because scientists had been planning for decades to use the phenomenon to
determine how close the earth is to the sun. In fact, this was how Captain
Cook got his first exploratory mission. Sadly, due to the "black-drop"
effect, which makes Venus appear to stick to the edge of the sun (below),
scientists couldnít get good measurements, so they still couldnít come up
with an accurate number for the distance to the sun.
We observed the Venus transit from Fringilla Farm in Zambia. If you donít have a clue where Zambia is (we didnít), itís a small, poor country in the southern part of Africa. If you think of Africa as a grossly misshapen ice cream cone, Zambia is in the middle section of the cone.
Why Zambia? First, the full transit was only visible from certain parts of the world. For example, the Western U.S. could not see it at all, since it occurred at night. The Middle East and northern Africa posed obvious problems, if nothing else the hassle of trying to get through security with 100 lbs of astronomy equipment. Europe was iffy for clear weather. And finally, the tour company, Twilight Tours, had previously used the farm in Zambia for a 2001 solar eclipse tour, with excellent results.
On the trip we met the famous Dr. Ed Krupp, Director of Griffith Observatory. He also was organizing a transit tour and, after joining with Twilight Tours, the final group totaled almost twenty people. It was a fun bunch to travel with, as we viewed the sights of Cape Town, South Africa, the sand dunes of Sossusvlei, Namibia, and the wild life in Etosha, Namibia, where we saw elephants, lions, giraffes, zebras, and many other birds and beasts, often together at the same watering hole.
Our transit viewing, photographing, and videotaping went pretty well, see Daveís astrophoto web page if youíre interested in details.
We have another shot at a Venus transit in 2012, but after that the next transit wonít occur until 2117. I wonder if theyíll even be using paint then.
After the Venus transit, we spent another nine nights in Namibia, which is on the western side of southern Africa, just above South Africa. We stayed at Tivoli Farm, an astronomical lodge at a remote site right on the Tropic of Capricorn.
It is amazing the extremes of viewing we experienced over the course of the year. In Los Angeles, you see the Big Dipper pointing to Polaris (the North Star) about 30 degrees up in the sky. In Iceland, Polaris was high up overhead, as was the Big Dipper. In Namibia, the Big Dipper was flat on the horizon at sunset, pointing to Polaris through the center of the earth.
We traveled to Tivoli with two other people from the Venus transit tour, Vicki and Greg Buchwald. They are from the Chicago area, and the nicest people you could ever meet. Vicki and Greg are both avid amateur astronomers and eclipse fanatics, having been to Fringilla Farm in Zambia, and many times to Tivoli. Dave was able to use several pieces of Gregís equipment at the farm, saving us perhaps 100 extra pounds of luggage.
Being the only non-astronomer in the group, I wasnít sure if I would be bored stiff in Tivoli, but it ended up being the best part of the whole trip. Vicki was amazing at using the 20-inch Dobsonian telescope, and there are lots of interesting objects that can only be seen well in the southern hemisphere (love that Jewel Box cluster!). Dave convinced me to try taking some astrophotos with our consumer digital camera. It turned out to be really fun, although I had a really bad moment when I wandered off to get a shot of the Southern Cross by a windmill, and almost got stuck in a maze of fences and thorn bushes (the disadvantage of dark skies!).
The farm owners, Reinhold and Kirsten, also made the stay extremely enjoyable, and amateur astronomers from Germany and France contributed to the camaraderie.
The Tivoli site is extremely dark, flat, and isolated (the one nighttime airplane we saw the whole week was the first Greg had ever seen there). This is the exact opposite of L.A. skies: light polluted, hilly, crowded, and full of planes. We started missing it as soon as we returned.
The trip back was grueling. From the time we left the hotel in Namibia to the time we arrived home, over 47 hours had elapsed, 23 of them on an unbelievably cramped Airbus from Johannesburg to Atlanta. Next time we go through Frankfurt!
Update 1406.12: Added article to newly created eclipse series