Guest blog: Venus transit from Kitt Peak

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Frequent imaging contributor John Chumack recently returned to his home in Dayton, Ohio, from a trip to witness the June 5 transit of Venus from Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. He and two friends were able to set up their equipment to witness the event near the Arizona Radio Observatory 12-meter Radio Telescope site, which had the best western view of the transit in the area. John was kind enough to share some photos a recap of this once-in-a-lifetime trip.

The amazing telescopes atop Kitt Peak National Observatory surrounded John Chumack and his friends as they witnessed the June 5 transit of Venus. // all photos by John Chumack
Two observing friends — Ron Whitehead of Dayton, Ohio, and Barry Craig of Southfield, Michigan — and I started out from our home states on early morning flights to Tucson, Arizona, and met up at the airport around 12 noon on Sunday, June 3. We had rented an SUV to carry our equipment and other astro-gear  — about four heavy luggage bags each!

First stop was to check in at our hotel for the night. We would make the drive up to Kitt Peak the next day, so that evening, after checking in to the hotel and getting a bite to eat, we went shopping for last-minute supplies (food, duct tape, black sheets, etc.) preparation for the next few days on the mountain.
 


John Chumack and his two friends brought plenty of equipment with which to observe and image the last transit of Venus until 2117.
Early Monday morning, we were graced with a partial lunar eclipse visible from Tucson. Fortunately, it was clear, so we managed to capture the event around from 3 a.m. to 4 a.m. from the parking lot of our hotel.  It was beautiful and fun to watch, and we got some other guests at the hotel to come out at 4 a.m. to view the eclipse with us.
 
After the eclipse, we went back to sleep for a couple of hours, got up, had breakfast, and drove over to see Frank Lopez, owner of Stellar-Vision Astronomy & Science Shop in Tucson. Frank has an amazing place with more than 100 telescopes and mounts on display, as well as every eyepiece ever made and some really neat antique scopes, too. We were like kids in a candy store — ogling over beautiful telescopes, mounts, and accessories!
 
Don McCarthy of the University of Arizona (left) helped John Chumack gain access to Kitt Peak to witness the transit.
From my previous experience on Mount Lemmon (Astronomy Camp 2006), I knew it would be windy up in the mountains, so I needed a heavy, solid mount to keep the wind from ruining my imaging of the transit. Thanks to Barry, we had prearranged to rent a couple of heavy mounts from Frank, as we did not want to carry heavy mounts on the airplanes during our trip. So we got all of the mount gear and battery backups we needed from Frank, and squeezed it all into the already over-packed SUV.

After being slowed down by heavy traffic, the U.S. Border Patrol, and major construction delays on the usually 90-minute drive from Tucson, we finally made it to the base of Kitt Peak. We started driving up to the summit on an 18-mile well-paved winding road, but kept stopping every few hundred yards to appreciate the incredible views. Every turn had a new amazing vista!

Venus almost entirely enters the realm of the Sun's disk in this Hydrogen-alpha image.
We finally reached the Kitt Peak Visitor Center and met with the grad student of my good friend Dr. Don McCarthy of the University of Arizona (and of Hubble and James Webb space telescopes fame), Matt Whitehouse, who had waited patiently for us during our 1.5-hour delay. Matt graciously showed us to our quarters located at the Arizona Radio Observatory  (ARO) 12-meter Radio Telescope site.
 
After finally checking in and unloading our gear, we met two professional astronomers, John (MIT) and Mike (ARO), who kindly opened up the scopes and facilities to us for a private tour. This was awesome, amazing, and jaw-dropping — the shear size of the scopes so impressive!
 


The University of Arizona's Steward Observatory Astronomy Campers also viewed the Venus transit from Kitt Peak.
Having some time later to relax, we walked about at 6,000 feet elevation, taking photos of the site and enjoying the breathtaking views of the Sonoran Desert. We watched the sunset, which was spectacular, and based on that view, we knew we would be able to see every bit of the transit visible from Kitt Peak. Before going to bed, we set up our mounts and got everything polar-aligned so we would have no issues tracking the Sun and Venus at high magnification.
 
We woke up June 5 — transit day — to crystal-clear skies with a small breeze. So after breakfast and a few cups of coffee, we started checking our equipment. We decided to start with some visual solar observing in Hydrogen-alpha before first contact. I showed the professional astronomers the view, and they were amazed at the quality of the equipment available to amateurs today. Several said it got them excited about visual astronomy again!
 

Venus' black disk stands out amid prominences and granulation on the Hydrogen-alpha Sun.
At 3:09 p.m. local time, first contact was on top of us, so I started capturing high-resolution close-ups of Venus creeping slowly across the Sun. Compared to my backyard in Dayton, Ohio, where I do most of my solar imaging work, the seeing and transparency were excellent on Kitt Peak. No wonder there are 25 large optical telescopes and two radio telescopes up there!
 
Dr. McCarthy brought his 25th anniversary Astronomy Campers (ages 14 to 19) up to enjoy the transit with us, giving them close-up views through our filtered scopes, binoculars, and showing them Venus up close at high resolution on my computer monitor as well. The campers also made their own Sun funnels and used solar glasses to view the transit, too.
 
The University of Arizona's Steward Observatory Astronomy Camp is the brainchild of Dr. McCarthy, who has for 25 years inspired youth to get involved in astronomy. He helps spark the interest, and for many who attend his camps, this is sometimes all it takes for them to pursue a career in astronomy!
 
The Sun and Venus set behind the mountains from the view at Kitt Peak, ending a fantastic transit day.
All 50 of us watched as the Sun headed for the horizon, taking in a beautiful sunset as Venus fell into a pocket between two small mountain peaks. A few moments later, both Venus and the Sun disappeared over the horizon for the last time — at least for 105 years!
 
Touring Kitt Peak National Observatory, hanging out with the professional astronomers, getting some nice images of this historic event, and
sharing it all with my friends and the future astronomers of the 25th anniversary of Astronomy Camp — it was  an incredible adventure that will live with me forever!
 
Thanks go to ARO astronomers John and Mike for being great hosts and giving us private tours. Thanks to Dr. McCarthy for all he does to inspire our youth to pursue their dreams and passions in astronomy, and many thanks to him for putting my friends and I up at the ARO on Kitt Peak and making this a trip of a lifetime!

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