Discover the Universe: The Sun, from sea to desert

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It’s been an exciting couple of months for astronomy! The annular eclipse in late May followed by the last-in-our-lifetime transit of Venus in early June have provided amateur astronomers and their friends plenty to look at. As part of Astronomy’s Discover the Universe program, Astronomical League Member-at-Large and Contributing Astronomer for the Royal Observatory of Belgium R. G. “Ryc” Rienks and his wife, Penny, held public events for these spectacles. He shares his experiences of “The Sun, from sea to desert” below:

R. G. “Ryc” Rienks journeyed to seashore and desert to help the public see some impressive celestial sights. Here, the author (at far left) joins a group in Crescent City, California, for the annular eclipse May 20. // All photos by Penny Rienks
Our first event, which we viewed from the shore of the Pacific Ocean, was the annular eclipse May 20. Penny and I wanted to be as close to the path’s centerline as possible, so we selected Crescent City, California, as our observation destination. After arriving in the motel the day before, we checked the next day’s weather. It didn’t look good. We considered relocating, but decided to stick with our first choice: It would be frustrating to change locations and still be clouded out, only to learn learn that Crescent City had provided great views after all.

The big day began with clouds and thick fog. It lifted slowly, but the clouds lingered. At 4:30 p.m. local time, we set up a Meade ETX-90 with a Kendrick white-light filter and a Coronado Personal Solar Telescope, which gives a Hydrogen-alpha image. The Sun teased us with intermittent views through breaks in the clouds. The equipment and our antics drew a crowd augmented by motel employees and other guests. I explained what was going to happen and saw discussion spread as the group grew. Once first contact began, the rush was on. Our new friends looked and offered each other insights as they took in the white light and Hα views.

he day of the annular eclipse began with lousy weather, but much of it was still visible. The clouds also helped some photographers snap pictures of the eclipse.
When Penny began shooting photos though the eyepiece, we saw phones and cameras appear as others copied her technique. Those with cameras compared results with each other before going back for more. Gradually, the light diminished enough to allow guests to take photos directly through the clouds.

Because the telescopes required my constant aiming assistance, I saw first contact and the closing of the ring of fire in both telescopes. Eventually, the clouds completely shut us out. I packed the scopes and called it a day, with total observation time lasting from 5 to 7 p.m. We estimated the crowd at about 50, and we were happy to have them enjoy the sights with us. Many remarked that they would never have seen this show without Penny and me providing the opportunity.

Our second event, this time in the desert, was the transit of Venus on June 5 at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (OTIC) in Baker City. The day required a certain optimism initially, as it began with heavy clouds and rain. Luckily, the rain quit by 1 p.m., although strong winds continued. Overcast gave way to thinning clouds with short Sun breaks, giving us a first look at the transit during second contact. Once we had views, our guests lined up to see Venus in silhouette against the Sun for the last time this century.

The weather was also problematic for the author’s transit of Venus event at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City. The Sun, and the tiny black dot of Venus upon it, did eventually appear, to the delight of the crowd.
Gaps and dense clouds continued to chase each other in front of the Sun, allowing views in both telescopes (the same ones from the annular eclipse) and with welder-glass viewing masks. The guests, about 85 in all, ranged from toddlers to octogenarians. All but the very youngest exclaimed their delight at being able to witness this event; the children were happy just to be on the mountain and around all the excitement.

I am grateful for the sponsorship of Astronomy magazine and our friends at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Their educational handouts were a hit with our guests, who received them gratefully. I’d also like to give special thanks to the OTIC staff for their efforts, and to my wife, Penny.

Outreach programs may not go hand-in-hand with gathering scientific data, but they do excite people’s curiosity regarding astronomy. It seems a fair trade.

That’s pretty much the way we feel about it, too, Ryc. Thanks for hosting such great events and helping bring the awe of these past few months to the public! We’re happy we could help. If you want to know how Astronomy magazine’s Discover the Universe program can help your club, please email me at bandrews@astronomy.com.

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