Thursday, May 31, 2012


Last Transit of Venus this Century

On Tuesday June 5, the planet Venus will go in front of the Sun.  Although not as dramatic as a solar eclipse, a Transit of Venus is so rare that it has only been noted six times in human history!  The Earth, Venus, and Sun have lined up for astronomers in 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874, 1874, and 2004.  And the next one will be 2117 (do you get the pattern?). 

In 2004 I traveled to New Hampshire to see it as the Sun rose.  I was met by fog that blocked out the Sun!  I almost panicked (okay, I did panic), but luckily the fog parted enough for me to view the very end.  That's the picture I took through a telescope with a solar filter.  It's like a little black spot on the Sun.  Now I want another shot at it...

The timetable for June 5th is this:
       Transit begins at 6:04pm EDT
           It will slowly march across the disc of the Sun until...
                   Check your local sunset for exact times and make sure to have a clear view to the north-western horizon.

It's never safe to look at the Sun so always use proper solar filters.  For six cool, safe ways to view the event, see:

If it's cloudy where you are on June 5, you can watch the Transit of Venus on a live webcast at:  

Everyone in the United States and most of Canada will be able to see the event.  I'm heading to Arizona in the hopes of making use of the clear, desert skies (with no fog).  Hopefully I'll have some great pictures to share after June 5 because I'm not gonna make it until 2117.

Happy Transit of Venus!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Annular Solar Eclipse

Report From Reno, Nevada

Sunday May 20, 2012 I traveled to Reno, Nevada to see the annular solar eclipse.  An annular eclipse occurs when the Moon is too far from the Earth to appear big enough to block the entire Sun.  It's like a ring around the Moon.  The cosmic ballet between Sun, Moon, and Earth is so fine that it was only visible from a narrow path from Northern California to West Texas.  Reno was perfect!

The local planetarium and amateur astronomy group hosted an eclipse viewing party at the Redfield Campus of the University of Nevada.  It was a picturesque scene with the snow-capped mountains of Lake Tahoe along the western horizon.  About 1000 people witnessed the event with some very creative ways of viewing the Sun safely.

Casting Pinhole Eclipse Shadows
When the eclipse started at 5:15 PDT only a small cheer rose from the crowd.  Clouds were hovering above the mountains and we were all a little anxious about them.  The clouds blocked the view before annularity off and on, but mostly stayed out of the way.  As the eclipse progressed, we could see crescent suns projected through leaves down onto the ground.  I was viewing with #14 welder's glass and a PST, trying to take pictures whenever I could.  The light got very eerie especially when the 85% eclipsed Sun went behind a cloud.  And then annularity came - with a small, pesky cloud nearby.  We saw it for 20 seconds before the cloud got it. "BOOOO!" the crowd yelled as if they could move the cloud with their contempt.  Then the cloud moved and there it was.  WOW!  I was struck speechless.  Through the welder's glass it was incredible - almost like a total eclipse. 

I managed to take these pictures in between wows.  Right click on them and "Open Link In New Window" for a bigger view.  Ah, I love being an eclipse chaser!  Next up: Transit of Venus on June 5... 


Friday, May 11, 2012


Hydra is the largest of the 88 officially recognized constellations in the sky. Finding the huge water snake will be a little difficult because the constellation has only one bright star. But it’s not hopeless. One method to locate Hydra is to find the two bright stars in Gemini. Connect the dots of those two stars and continue a line to the south. This line of sight will take you to Hydra’s many heads - it should look like five or six dim stars together. Trace down the coils to the left and you will find Alphard (also a Harry Potter character), the snake’s heart, and the rest of his long body.

Alphard Black
The Arabs named this star Alphard meaning “The Solitary One” because it seems to sit low in the southern sky all by itself. Alphard is an orange giant which is an appropriate color since it is supposed to mark the heart of the snake.

Another way to find Hydra is to first locate Leo the Lion. Find the backwards question mark that is Leo’s head. The lion is facing Hydra so look where Leo is looking and you should find either the six-starred head or bright heart of Hydra.

The Greeks believed that Hydra was a terrible monster with seven, eight, or even nine heads that lurked in the swamps of Lerna. Each head had a different scary face - with long teeth, fangs, or gums. Okay, maybe not gums. But people had tried to kill the Hydra before and discovered that every time you cut off one of her heads, two more would grow back in its place!

What do you do? 
Call Hercules. 
Tune in next week for the exciting tale!

Friday, May 4, 2012


Although Corvus is a small constellation, it’s relatively easy to find in the sky. Look for his distinctive square/trapezoid shape low in the southern sky riding on the back of Hydra the water snake. In an area of few bright stars Corvus stands out in the late spring and early summer evenings.

The Greeks associated this constellation with a story about the god Apollo. Apollo often used a crow as a messenger - to pick up his lunch, dry cleaning, etc. One day, Apollo sent Corvus out with a golden cup to gather some water for him. The crow took the cup in his beak and flew off toward the river. But along the way, Corvus became distracted by a grove of fig trees. He decided to stop of and eat some of these delicious fruits.

 Well, Corvus completely lost track of time while chowing down, and began to panic. “Oh no. Oh no. Apollo is going to kill me for returning so late,” he cried. “I must find an excuse.” So Corvus flew around and spotted a humongous water snake swimming in the river. Corvus swooped down and grabbed the snake in his claws to carry back to Apollo as an excuse.
"What? Don't you believe me?"
When he returned, Apollo was furious. “Where have you been!” he screamed. “You see, your most worshipness,” Corvus whimpered, “I was delayed in bringing you your water to quench your divine thirst. But it wasn’t my fault. It was this accursed water snake. He wouldn’t let me get you any water. So I picked him up and brought him here for you to see.”

“Oh, I see,” said Apollo softly. Because Apollo could sense this tale for what it was. It was a lie – and not even a very good lie. In a fit of rage, Apollo banished the crow, the cup, and the water snake to the sky forever. And as a final punishment to Corvus, he must ride on the snake’s back for eternity with the cup of water just out of his beak’s grasp - forever thirsty. And to this day crows are cursed with such rough, raspy voices.

"So thirsty..." Click on it for a larger picture of Corvus, Crater (the cup) and Hydra