Monday, June 11, 2012

In transit

"There's a little black spot on the sun today"
Sting and the Police, 'King of Pain'

06 June 2012

I awoke on my own at a few minutes before 0400; the alarm burred to life while I was brushing my teeth. A quick glance out my stateroom window confirmed the weather forecast for the morning - clear with some haze in the air - and as I finished dressing I reviewed my plan, searching for flaws. All equipment packed? Battery packs charged? Would two bottles of water be enough? What had I forgotten?

I'd been getting ready for this morning for three months, and anticipating it for many years. Ever since, as a teenager, I had read of Captain Cook's expedition to Tahiti (primarily to observe a Transit) and the journeys of Victorian era astronomers and geometers in a later century, my imagination has been fired by the idea of worlds in motion, of the clockwork motion of the Solar System, and being part of a grand event, a literal "once in a lifetime" occurrence; the Transit of Venus across the disk of the Sun.

I climbed two decks down to the mess deck and watched CNN while eating a bowl of grits and an apple; around the world observers were enjoying and sharing the experience I had yearned for so very long. With the event nearly halfway over my friends and associates in the US were closing down their observing sites as Earth turned them away from the Sun; the islands and mainland of the Pacific Rim were the only witnesses to the Transit now.

My own turn would come soon; dawn was only an hour away.

With time to spare I rode the elevator to Humphreys' bridge; there the weather instruments again verified the morning forecast. A cup of tea at the rail, watching the gibbous Moon sink toward the western horizon and the lights of metropolitan Dubai, and then it was time to go down to the flight deck and set up my equipment.

I might've been in the city this morning. I did receive an invitation a few days ago from the local amateur astronomy group to join them on a local university campus to enjoy the company of fellow observers as we watched the Transit through their telescopes. I could've probably cadged a sofa to sleep on, or even sprung for a relatively inexpensive hotel room near their site, and yet I had chosen to stay aboard ship to observe the event in the midst of an industrial nightmare of haze and dust, fumes and noise.

Why NOT go into Dubai to see the Transit? Certainly the view through the local astronomer's telescopes would have been far more impressive than that seen through my 10x50 binoculars, and their advanced imaging gear would undoubtedly produce better photographs than my little "consumer shooter" camera with a piece of aluminized Mylar solar filter material (essentially a pop-tart wrapper) rubber-banded across the lens. Who could be better company than other amateur astronomers, fully cognizant of the event and its mechanism and meaning, both physical and historical?

Who, indeed?

The Jumbled Horizon of the port of Jebel Ali at Dawn

By the time I reached the flight deck with my knapsack full of gear and bottles of water, the eastern sky was rapidly growing lighter; when I had finished attaching filters to binoculars and camera to tripod sunrise was only minutes away. With one last adjustment to the camera's manual settings, I was ready.

0529: Sunrise - but an invisible one, masked by desert dust and industrial gloom! Patience, Tom.

0542: Finally, rising from the murk, the flattened yellow-orange globe of the Sun--and even without any optical assistance at all I could clearly see the tiny black dot in its upper-left quadrant. Venus. I stood in awe; at last I was seeing with my own eyes that which I had read about and imagined for so many years! If only there were someone handy with whom I could enjoy the experience...

0544 Local Time: A Little Black Spot on the Sun…

Those who know my astronomical activities and interests well have likely guessed why I "passed" on going in to Dubai to watch the Transit, why I stayed aboard this morning to view Venus' passage in the less-than-optimal conditions of massive port complex, having to deal with the noise, vibration and sluggish motion of a ship alongside the quay rather than a solidly-mounted telescope in a quiet, clean location. They know that the only thing that comes close to the pleasure of stargazing for me is the satisfaction I get from showing other folks what is out there, what they can see in the skies with their own eyes if only they know when and where to look.

You see, with me it's all about astronomical "outreach"; making the effort to share the heavens with the public. When back in Virginia (my home-base with the Navy) I try to take advantage of every opportunity to set-up a telescope in a public place, inviting passersby to "come take a look at Jupiter/the Moon/some sunspots". Aboard whatever ship I am currently sailing I work to drum-up interest in lunar eclipses and meteor showers, conjunctions and comets. You might be surprised at how many people gaze through the eyepiece or stare through binoculars and then tell me that they've NEVER viewed the Moon before that night, or even knew that you COULD see a planet with your unaided eyes!

My motives are quite selfish in this pursuit; in raising awareness and appreciation of the visual wonders of the Universe I find that my own enjoyment of those same wonders is enhanced. As if I were seeing each object or event through fresh eyes; coming into greater understanding as I explain to new stargazers what they are seeing and some of the theory behind it.

0733 Local Time; Finally Out of the Murk

For two weeks I've been sending email updates to Humphreys' crew with the purpose of making them and their families back home (in the States, Philippines, Guam and Samoa) aware of the Transit, how to view it safely, and what we can expect to see aboard ship. Yesterday, having made the decision not to go to the city for the event, I sent one last notice out informing all hands that I would be on-deck this morning, and inviting them to come out and watch the show with me.

0830 Local Time; The Spectacle Draws to a Close

Had just one member of the crew turned-out to watch our "sister" planet cross the solar face the effort would have been well worth my while. I would have been satisfied with a few early-risers joining me on the flight deck - but as the Sun cleared the omnipresent dust cloud over the harbor I am happy to report that a dozen of my Shipmates were on-station, carefully passing the filtered binoculars back and forth and wrapping Mylar over their own camera lenses to capture the scene for themselves.

Score! (Virtual fist-pump)

Today, as we watched Venus glide across the face of the Sun, passing groups of sunspots (I counted six separate groupings - one of our Boatswains Mates was sure he saw seven), I kept busy explaining the event to late arrivals, answering questions about our local star and sister planet, taking photographs and - just occasionally - claiming the binoculars for a few minutes' admiration of the spectacle. The hours flew by, and soon Venus neared the point on the solar disk where it would move clear of the Sun and vanish from sight against the glare.

0836; The “Black Drop” Effect

I was thrilled to see and record the famous "black drop" effect, which happens when a transiting planet seems just about to "touch" the Sun's limb; the edges of the two bodies seemed to melt together, with Venus acquiring a teardrop-shape both through the binoculars and the camera. Many theories have circulated over the years to explain this phenomenon; today the accepted explanation is that the "black drop" is the result of the effect of turbulence in Earth's atmosphere on the seeing and thus the resolution of optics and the eye. Whatever the reason, certainly the effect is striking and otherworldly!

Even as the Transit drew to a close, with Venus rapidly approaching the point of egress from the Sun's disk, more members of Humphreys' crew were stopping by to take a look at the unfolding spectacle. With my attention divided between sky, camera and answering questions I have only a vague idea of how many members of the crew came by, but a full page of my observing journal is taken up by "guest book" entries, giving a minimum number of twenty-two.

0848; Venus Departs the Stage

0849: Finally, over three hours after sunrise and the "beginning" of the Transit (at least for us), and with the day already heating toward the triple-digit temperatures common in this desert land, we watched as the deep shadow of Venus moved off the Sun's face, finally vanishing from sight. A collective cheer met the conclusion of the event; we all raised our water bottles in salute to a rare and beautiful show!

As the party on the flight deck broke up, and I began to pack my gear, I just had to pause and turn the binoculars on Sol once again. Our Sun's disk seemed oddly empty without that small, round silhouette gracing it's face, and I felt a moment's sorrow and even pride; sorrow in that this long-awaited Transit is now finished, and pride in having experienced it first-hand, in having seen and helped others to see this amazing demonstration of our dynamic solar system.

The next Transit of Venus will be one hundred and five years from now. I certainly won't see it; astronomers still decades from being born will observe the 2117 Transit and other wonders which we cannot even imagine, and perhaps as they do they will think back to the stargazers who preceded them, who braved storms and desert heat to watch a planet silently glide across the face of the Sun. To be remembered in this way, however abstractly, is a form of immortality that appeals to me.

It is enough for me to know that today I realized a childhood dream in that black spot on the Sun, and that in the course of my own exaltation I was able to open the eyes of a few others to the beauty of the skies. NOW I can begin in earnest to prepare for the Total Solar Eclipse, coming up in August of 2017. After all, it's only five years away!

"I recommend it therefore again and again to those curious astronomers who (when I am dead) will have an opportunity of observing these things, that they would remember this my admonition, and diligently apply themselves with all their might in making this observation, and I earnestly wish them all imaginable success..."
Sir Edmund Halley on Transits