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Chasing the Planet Venus

Ernie Piini


I've chased many solar eclipses in my lifetime but chasing the 'shiny lady' across the face of the sun on June 8, 2004 was a totally different and exhausting experience.

Aware of this upcoming and rare historic transit for many years, my daughter, Elaine, and I arranged to go to Egypt with Jen & Vic Winters of Astronomical Tours to view the 6 hour, 13 minute, duration of the transit. This tour offered a better than 94 percent promise of clear skies, a chance to visit Luxor, the Valley of the kings, and see the famous pyramids.

But fate interfered on January 24, 2004. At 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning I went out to the front yard to pick up the morning newspaper. While bending awkwardly, reaching for the paper, my right hip joint jumped out of its socket. I quickly realized I did not have a leg to stand on. The dislocation was very painful. The heavy rain pummeled my body and my head was in the gutter gushing with rain water. I tried franticly to arouse my wife, Barbara, or any neighbor, but it took an anxious 10 minutes before she came looking for me. She called 911 and soon the local fire truck and an ambulance came to bring me to a nearby hospital. They put me asleep and returned the hip ball back into its socket. (I had both left and right total hip replacements done in 1991.)

While on the ground that morning I realized that no way could I go to Egypt and perhaps have this happen to me while out in the desert far from medical help. So, we canceled the Egyptian tour.

The next best thing was to plan a trip to the East Coast to catch an early morning view of the near 3rd contact position of Venus. We contacted Audie and Margie Barnett of Hartville, Ohio, whom I have gone on many Eclipse Chasing trips with the New Jersey Amateur Astronomers Inc. (AAI) organization and they offered to join us in the chase for Venus. We communicated and planned our trip via e-mail.

We also contacted Beth Yule, our AAI tour agent from New York City, who graciously set us up with hotel accommodations just a few blocks from "Ground Zero" a must see on this trip. We also visited Ellis Island where we searched their files for important information on my dad, who came to America from Switzerland in 1923.

We also received excellent weather forecasting from none other than meteorologist, Jay Anderson, a Canadian who provides climate forecasts for all solar eclipses. Although the weather on the east coast is always a challenge to predict-with rain, thunderstorms, and snow possible-nothing like good old California sunshine. We were able to zero in on an acceptable location the evening before the transit.

I have been chasing Venus since its first reappearance in the evening sky in the latter part of 2003. I faithfully followed its rise every evening towards maximum elongation in April 2004, maximum brilliancy on May 1st, and finally now as it crosses the sun on June 8th. In between views I marveled at its proximity to the waxing moon on March 24th, and was thrilled with its encounter with the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades cluster on April 3rd, when it formed the end of a handle of a mini dipper. Of coarse the most thrilling view was to catch it silhouetted against the face of our sun on that Tuesday morning in Boston overlooking the Atlantic Ocean from Revere Beach Blvd.

We woke around 3:00 a.m. the morning of the transit and saw the waning moon outside our hotel window signaling a chance for clear skies! While setting up our equipment the fog rolled in from the Atlantic and delayed our seeing the sun for about 25 minutes. Elaine saw the big round spot on the sun first with her binoculars. I finally saw it through the camcorder as did the Barnett's nearby. What a sight! We enjoyed about 45 minutes of clear skies before a cloud bank from the west obscured the 3rd contact "eye-drop" effect and the remaining egress. (The "eye drop" effect is akin to that seen when our sun nears the ocean horizon at sunset.) But we saw what we worked so hard to capture.

Our photographing equipment consisted of a Canon GL-1 camcorder with a Rokunar 2X video lens and a Baader ND-5 solar filter. Along side on a Takahashi "Sky Patrol" equatorial mount we also attached a Celestron C-90 telescope with a Baader ND-5 filter and took photos with a Canon "Rebel" digital camera. Acceptable results were obtained from both units.

On November 6, 1993, Joe Shrock and I had traveled to Canberra, Australia to see and photograph the smaller planet Mercury. We brought with us a hefty telescope eyepiece projection system that magnified the small 10-arc-second wide planet (1/194th the apparent diameter of the sun) up to a 12 inch sun diameter image on our screen. The telescope consisted of a 5-inch, double folded refractor (72-inch focal length) with input fed by a simple heliostat. But our afternoon dilemma was a very strong wind that began when the transit began. The image jittered excessively but we caught Mercury using Joe's camcorder. A better still photo of the transit was obtained with a separate C-90 telescope using a 12 mm eyepiece projection on Kodachrome 200 film. (see Astronomy Magazine, April 1994, p. 87).

In summary, our quest to see the famous rare spot, three times the diameter of the planet Mercury, appear on the face of our sun had to be one of the most exciting views of our lifetime. In only eight more years we'll see it again in California on June 6, 2012.


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