Guest blog: Bucket List Astronomy Tour Class — transit of Venus

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Bucket List Astronomy Tour (BLAsT) Class, a group of 10 Sam Houston State University undergraduate students on a journey to witness some of the best astronomical events of a lifetime, had the opportunity to witness the transit of Venus from a pretty cool location — Parkes Observatory, just outside Parkes, Australia, which hosts the 64-meter Parkes radio telescope. Kevin Mulcahy, a senior studying computer animation, shares his reflections:

The BLAsT Class watched the transit of Venus from Parkes Observatory, home to the 64-meter Parkes radio telescope, nicknamed the Dish. // photo courtesy C. Renee James
We went to the town of Parkes (about five hours northwest of Sydney) to watch the transit of Venus across the Sun. It started really early in the morning, at about 8:15 a.m. The Sun was just over the trees from where we were standing in the Moonraker Motel parking lot, by the time first contact happened, which we couldn't really see, of course. But we were clearly able to see the second contact, when Venus entered fully into the Sun's disk. It was a lot like watching the solar eclipse a few weeks ago, except much, much smaller. With a pair of solar filter glasses, you could just barely see Venus moving across the Sun. It looked like a little dot on the bottom of an orange. Probably a better way of putting it into perspective would be comparing it to an orange pingpong ball, the Sun, with a dot from a fine tip sharpie on it, Venus. Through the telescope, we could see a number of sunspots, and Venus looked like a really big sunspot, but perfectly round.

After second contact, which happened at 8:34 a.m., we went over to Parkes' radio telescope, nicknamed  the Dish, to continue watching the event. We had a pretty good view of what was going on for the first two hours. The sky was totally clear. At the dish, several telescopes had been set up to view the transit as well. These were stronger than ours and had different kinds of filters on them, which made the Sun look different colors. There was one like what we had, which made it appear orange. Then there was a Hydrogen-alpha filter that made the Sun look blood red and actually showed some structure to our star.


Nicholas MacDonald captured the Sun and Venus as the planet was nearing second contact with his camera covered by a sheet of solar filter material.
Besides the astronomers, there were a lot of other visitors at the dish. We had a good little public outreach event everywhere we went, and talked to a lot of them and showed them what was going on. We even showed the manager, Simon, and the cleaning ladies at the motel the view through our telescope. To think: None of us are even astronomy majors, and yet how much we know and can share with other people!

The sky ended up clouding over in the afternoon, so we didn't see the third contact, as Venus exited the Sun. But John Sarkissian graciously gave us a personal tour of the Dish, allowing us to walk up through the control room and even go out on the walkway right underneath the Dish itself. The Dish looked big, but up close, when you're on it, it's huge. We didn't get to play cricket up on it or take a hayride like in the movie The Dish, which we watched on the bus ride home. But it was pretty awesome seeing all the places in the movie, though a lot of it has been getting upgraded since. There were some astronomers preparing for upcoming projects that include communicating with various NASA spacecraft and surveying pulsars (the Dish has discovered more pulsars than the rest of the world put together!). But these onsite astronomers are going to become extinct soon. They're making it now so astronomers will be able to access it and do their observations remotely from anywhere around the world via the Internet. This seems a shame because it is an experience all its own to be physically at the Dish.

Samantha Toback (striped dark blue jacket) provides outreach to some of the many people who visited the Dish for the transit. The “lunar lander” looking thing in the background is not, in fact, a model of the lunar lander, but the old receiving “cabin” for the Dish, through which the faint signals came. The class guide, John Sarkissian, explained that the total amount of energy ever received from the outside universe by all the radio telescopes on planet earth was less than that of a feather hitting the ground. // photo by Mallory Smith
A plaque at the Dish commemorates the radio telescope’s role receiving live images of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Also on display is a toy pony, who was one of a dozen toys that kept getting photographed at iconic places on the BlAsT Class’ trip. // photo by C. Renee James

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