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Q:  Why does the Transit of Venus have a special place in Australia’s history?
A:  Without it, Australia may have been a Portuguese or Dutch colony!

England may not have commissioned James Cook (later known as Captain Cook) to make the voyage to discover the great south land if there had been no Transit of Venus in 1769.  Much earlier, Dutch and Portuguese explorers had already struck Australia, but hadn’t realized it was a huge continent. Given a few more years, they’d have explored further and taken possession.  Luckily for England, Cook, in addition to being a master navigator, was also a skilled cartographer.  When he mapped the eastern seaboard of the land, he grasped the truth about its size.  He promptly landed in what is now Botany Bay, Sydney, stuck the Union Jack in the sand, and said to the astonished Aborigines: “This land now belongs to England”, or words to that effect.

Let’s go back a few more years.  In the mid 1700s, Europe was abuzz with the problem of calculating the distance from the earth to the sun.  Edmund Halley (of comet fame) suggested that if the Transit of Venus was carefully observed from two widely separated places on earth, mathematics could be used to work out the earth/sun distance. There were two Transits in the 18th century. The first transit in 1761 occurred during the peak of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). A spirit of scientific collaboration was difficult to promote during the conflict. Despite that, many countries sent out expeditions, none of which succeeded.

The next transit was due eight years later in 1769.  The decade was one of great political rivalry, but both the English and French decided to send expeditions to observe the Transit of Venus.

For the 1769 Transit, England sent Cook to Tahiti to make observations. He was appointed master of the sailing ship Endeavour, and provided with a portable observatory to set up in Tahiti.  His mission was clear: the Endeavour was on a scientific quest. 

Sketch of portable observatory used by Cook

From Wikipedia: (now in public domain) Sketch of portable observatory used by Cook (Click on image to enlarge)

The British government, however, was smart.  The Admiralty gave Cook a sealed envelope that he was to open only after making observations of the Transit of Venus in Tahiti.  Cook did not know its contents. 

Cook set sail months earlier to be in time for the great event.  He reached Tahiti and made observations of the Transit of Venus.  The next day he opened the sealed envelope, and found new orders: he was to sail south to discover Terra Australis incognita: the unknown south land.  His new project was definitely non-scientific in nature.  

So Cook’s first voyage was exceptionally successful.  He personally viewed the Transit of Venus at Tahiti, then went on to discover the land that became modern Australia.  No wonder Australians have had a special interest in the subsequent Transits of Venus in 1874, 1882, 2004 and 2012.  

For the 1874 Transit, Sydney Observatory ordered a special telescope from Europe. (More details later in this blog.)  Just in case Sydney weather was overcast on the day of transit, Henry Chamberlain Russell, the director of the Observatory, set up three other viewing sites at Woodford in the Blue Mountains, Eden on the South coast and Goulburn on the Southern Tablelands.  Later, Russell wrote a book that became a classic in Astronomy:  “Observations of the Transit of Venus, 9 December 1874.”   The current director of Sydney Observatory, Nick Lomb, a Transit enthusiast, has given a sweeping historical and scientific account in his book:  “Transit of Venus: 1631 to the Present.”

Fast forward to 2012…

Keen astronomers, and the not-so-keen, were caught up in Transit fever in Australia for many months. The Transit was to be visible from most parts of Australia, and the big cities of the east – Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane – could view the entire transit from beginning to end.  Then there was the added thrill that we were lucky to be alive to witness the transit, for the next one will not happen for another 105 years.  And finally, we Australians speak English and follow the Westminster system of democracy all because Cook came south after observing the Transit of Venus in Tahiti in 1769. 

“Are you going to watch the Transit?” was the most common greeting in recent weeks, followed up by, “But what’s the weather going to be like?” The predictions were dire!

5 June 2012

When Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s canine friend wrote, “It was a dark and stormy night …” he could have been writing about the night of 5 June. The wind was howling, the seas were roaring (waves 7 metres high were hitting the coast) and hopes of viewing anything at all on the morrow were dismal. 

I was tempted to say DRAT – Dark Rainy And Tempestuous!

But, so as not to jinx the 6th, we went to bed with optimism. We had booked tickets at Sydney Observatory and we were going, come hell or high water. The main actors would be on stage in the sky, and to even imagine the curtains would be closed, was not worth thinking about!

6 June 2012 

We woke up early and when I looked out of Bedroom Observatory, the sight that greeted me was not encouraging. But the tiny piece of brightness was enough for me! “It’s clearing up,” I said to Dom.

The sky at 6 am

The sky at 6 am (Click on image to enlarge)

My optimism was rewarded. Just before we left, the sky brightened and there was an encouraging ray from the sun. Can you see it?

Sky at 7 am

And we were off. I was confident we would see the much anticipated celestial rendezvous. Our time slot at the Observatory was 10 am to 12.30 pm.

We arrived at Circular Quay and walked up Observatory Hill, well in time.  The sight that greeted us confirmed that there were many Sydneysiders who were as eager as we were.  Even more eager in fact for the people you see in the picture were from the earlier, stormier time slot. 

Viewers at the Observatory

The flags on the Observatory mast announced the big event.  You’ll recognize the planet Venus flag, but look closely and you’ll see the yellow Transit-of-Venus flag, specially made for the occasion.

Flag of the Transit of Venus

At the gate the special event sign greeted us:

Gate at Observatory

Gate at Observatory

We received our sunglasses and yellow wrist bands to mark our time slot. As Dom put on his wrist band he joked: “Just in case I get lost and my mother comes looking for me.” Our spirits were buoyant!

Wristband

Wristband (Click to enlarge)

My brother Neville joined us and we lined up at the first telescope. By now Venus was at 5 o’clock on the sun. The view was reversed by the telescope so, it was up top at the 1 o’clock position.

Neville at the telescope

Neville at the telescope (Click on image to enlarge)

 I viewed the Transit through binoculars.

Daphne looking at the Transit

Daphne looking at the Transit (Click on image to enlarge)

I now had ocular proof! Venus was a clear black dot. We could see the sun spots too!

The Observatory has observed all the Transits of Venus which have occurred after Captain Cook made his historic viewing. This exhibit shows the path of Venus in the three observations, 1874, 2004 and 2012.

Transit of Venus Exhibit

Transit of Venus Exhibit (Click on image to enlarge)

Sign in Observatory

No kidding! After all, Venus is our Earth’s sister and, as it is an inner planet, we can see it  crossing the face of the Sun. Venus is a third of the distance between us and the Sun.

Its orbit is not exactly on the same plane as Earth’s orbit. It is inclined by 3.4° relative to the Earth’s, and so Venus usually appears to us to pass under (or over) the Sun. It completes an orbit every 224.65 Earth days. Astronomers calculate mathematically exactly when the next Transit will occur.

The historic 1874 telescope in the dome is seriously impressive in size and optics!  And it is cared for with religious diligence.  As we lined up on the stairs, a squall of rain came, and the Observatory staff closed the dome immediately.  That’s why my picture is so dark.

The 1874 telescope

The 1874 telescope (Click on image to enlarge)

 If you are interested in the details, this is a H9886  11.4 inch equatorial refracting telescope; optics and brass tubes by Hugo Schroeder, Hamburg, Germany.

Dom gets an eyeful of Venus…

Dom at the big telescope

Dom at the big telescope (Click on image to enlarge)

Our next stop was for a talk in the marquee where Professor Iver H Cairns, Professor of Space Physics at Sydney University, spoke about sunspots.

12.15pm:  Live screens showed us the current state of transit. Venus had half way to go.

Transit at about 12 noon

Transit at about 12 noon (Click on image to enlarge)

Near the end of our time slot at the Observatory, the clouds came over and a drizzle forced Observatory staff to cover up all the telescopes and binoculars.

How lucky we were! We actually saw the Transit despite clouds, rain and wind. 

Time to reward ourselves we thought, so we walked over to a nearby cafeteria and warmed ourselves with some lunch.

Post Script: We went away with a reminder from the Observatory that 2012 is the Year of the Sun. We’ve had the Annular Eclipse of the Sun (not in Australia), the Transit of Venus, and we can look forward to the Total Eclipse of the Sun in Cairns in November.

Reminder of the Total Eclipse in November

Reminder of the Total Eclipse in November

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20 April 2012

After many, many days, the evening sky looked reasonably clear, so we went to Dover Heights, a suburb adjacent to Bondi, which faces the west. There from the platform of a large playing field we get a spectacular view of three suburbs, Bondi, the City and North Sydney. I hope the developers never, ever think of building here as it gives the public, in a crowded suburb, a place where children can play, people can walk their dogs and star gazers can come and enjoy the beauty of the night sky (despite the light pollution) against the background of our glittering city.

Somehow Dom and I have been forgetting about this grandstand view of the western sky – put it down to “senior” memory.

We went there this evening, carrying our cameras, and parked ourselves on a bench. A thick bank of clouds lay on the horizon up to about 10 degrees where the sun was setting and we thought we’d miss what we had come to see – Venus, the Evening Star – because it would be chasing the sun and soon drop below the horizon.

Anyway, we thought we’d just sit there and enjoy the cool evening and see which stars would pop out in the darkening sky. We saw headlights of planes flying this way and that. Then looking towards the north we saw two planes approaching, but as we watched we realised that one was not moving.

It is the higher one in this image. 

Venus and plane in evening sky

Venus and plane in evening sky (click on image to enlarge)

“Can’t be Venus”, we decided, though as it got darker, it kept getting brighter! “It is a bit more than 20 degrees – 21, I’d say!” estimated Dom with confident exactness. I had to agree.

“Must be Jupiter!” I tentatively suggested as it got brighter and brighter. “Now that’s brighter than any plane’s headlights,” said Dom.

Stars began to appear – Sirius was high up. The belt of Orion was becoming visible.

Convinced we’d missed Venus behind that huge bank of clouds near the setting sun, we picked up our gear and went home. We spied the big headlight in the sky in between buildings and above streets as we wound our way home. “Should have brought the binoculars,” I said. “Might have seen Jupiter’s Moons.”

…………….. 

Back at my computer I checked on Stellarium – it wasn’t Jupiter, was it? It was Venus! Not the King, but the Queen of the evening sky!

It was much higher than we expected and not as near to the sun as we had imagined.

But it sure was bright and beautiful!

21 April 2012

 We were drawn again to see Venus, this time with binoculars. Venus has phases like the Moon, so we wanted to see it as a crescent.

Planet Venus over Sydney, Australia

Planet Venus over Sydney, Australia (click on image to enlarge)

24 April 2012

We had a thunderstorm this afternoon and I thought our hopes of going to see Venus were zilch!

However, on our way back from our evening walk we spied the crescent Moon in the West against a clearing sky.

As soon as we got home, we took our gear and went to the platform which looks out west.

The sky was darkening and the Crescent Moon and Venus were getting brighter by the minute. The city lights came alive and the scene was breath-taking.

I wish I could say I got a good pic – sometimes it just does not happen.  This is the best of a bad lot.

Venus and crescent Moon

Venus and crescent Moon (click on image to enlarge)

The view is burned in my mind’s eye. It was just beautiful.

I sent emails to friends and family who do take the time to look at the night sky. Here’s what my niece Saritha had to say:

“So glad you sent us that information. We noticed it on the way home the other night. It was amazing – so low and bright that I was sure it was a plane, except that it wasn’t moving! Can’t believe it was actually Venus.

Feel quite excited about noticing the Evening Star – we may become star-gazers after all!”

As Greg, my US mentor says, it is wonderful when “people simply – and routinely – integrate  the night sky into their appreciation of nature.  It amazes me how many people are bird watchers, gardeners, or whatever – yet have no idea what is going on once the sun sets.”

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Tuesday 13 March. 

Before sunset we drove to a spot from where we hoped to get Jupiter and Venus smiling over downtown Sydney. It’s a place we pass daily and notice the fine view of the city skyline. (I’ve always wanted to catch the sunset from there, because Bondi is good for sunrises, but not sunsets.) At 7.30 pm the scene was splendid.

City skyline at sunset

City skyline at sunset (click on image to enlarge)

We waited for Jupiter and Venus to make an appearance and though the sky was darkening there was no sign of the heavenly pair. We soon realized it was because we weren’t quite in line for the western sky, so we moved around and then spotted them. They looked magnificent.

Jupiter and Venus over city of Sydney skyline

What looks like a good viewing spot in the day, does not necessarily turn out to be the best place for a photograph. The location is a bus terminus, and the blaze of lights was overpowering. We quickly decided to go further into the city to Woolloomooloo, a suburb from where the city buildings against the western sky are impressive at night. Time was passing – getting on to 8.45, but we hoped we’d catch J and V before they disappeared from sight.

We were just in time – only just! Can you spot them Jupiter and Venus in the next photo?

Jupiter and Venus between buildings of the city of Sydney

Jupiter and Venus between buildings of the city of Sydney (click on image to enlarge)

I vowed to keep following the planets, and the next time to look at them through binocs and telescope to study detail. Where were Jupiter’s Moons? Where was Titan, Saturn’s moon? Could I see the polar ice-cap on Mars? Could I see any detail on Jupiter, Venus?

The capricious sky gods have not obliged.  They’re back to their pastime of spreading clouds and pouring buckets of rain.

Meanwhile, the heavenly pair, who (from our viewpoint) were at their closest on March 14, are drifting apart.

See http://www.sydneyobservatory.com.au/2012/the-two-brightest-planets-in-the-sky-venus-and-saturn-have-a-spectacular-conjunction-in-march-2012/

for Dr Nick Lomb’s explanation of the movements of Jupiter and Venus this month.

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12 Mar 2012

Lately we have been getting an occasional glimpse of bright planets between clouds.

This evening a friend from Melbourne, who is also enthused about celestial happenings, excitedly rang to read us an item on the movements of Jupiter and Venus in the western sky. Thanks to that reminder we went out into Street Observatory at 8 o’clock. Our street runs east to west.

We had to walk up the street a little and stand near the middle of a traffic lane to get the best view.  Fortunately traffic was light, and Dom had a red torch to warn oncoming cars.  We looked west and beheld Venus and Jupiter – beautiful and bright.

As Greg, my mentor said, “Despite all my fascination with telescopes, I still get a thrill out of simply seeing the planets in the night sky and watching them change positions. It helps – for me, anyways – to understand what’s going on ‘backstage’. But people need to rediscover what you have found – simply look up at night – it’s a great show, we spend too much time in our caves!”

Venus and Jupiter on 12th March 2012

Venus and Jupiter on 12th March 2012 (Click on image to enlarge)

Having had our fill of Jupiter and Venus in the backdrop to our street, we folded the tripod and turned towards home. The celestial backdrop continued to the north.  We recognized Mars above the roof line of houses. Placing the tripod on a neighbour’s driveway I was focusing on Mars when a car stopped and the driver leaned out and said, “What are you photographing?” just in case we were spying into someone’s window.

“Mars”, Dom told the astonished man, “Right over the roof there!”

“So it is,” he said. “And it is red! Wow!”

Mars on 12th March 2012

Mars on 12th March 2012 (Click on image to enlarge)

We turned again and looked the other way downFrancis Street and lo and behold! The Cross and Pointers were looking down on us!

Southern Cross and Pointers

Southern Cross and Pointers (Click on image to enlarge)

I thought, hopefully, “Maybe at last, good sky watching times are here!”

After processing the photographs, I went to Bedroom Observatory at about 11 pm. Another planet, this time Saturn with the star Spica in Virgo were shining due east. Looking further east was the bright glow of the Gibbous Moon. I grabbed the binoculars and noticed that the angle of light had the section between Tycho and Mare Nectaris clearly outlining the craters.  I had not seen the SE sector so clearly. Craters everywhere. Several caught my eye and I tried to memorize their positions. Though the angle was awkward for the camera, I had to get a shot.

Gibbous Moon

Gibbous Moon (click on image to enlarge)

Dom and I pondered over the map a long while to identify Theophilus with the imposing central mountain. Tucked into the side of  Theophilus,  is Cyrillus.  The third in this neat threesome on the banks of Mare Nectaris is Catharina. The map is beautiful, but oh! how much more gorgeous is the real thing especially when the craters are in 3D.

Oh! what a night!

I need to spend more time studying some of the other craters that were clearly in the light.

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