Champagne transit at Siding Spring Observatory

June 12, 2012

Transit of Venus_6 June 2012_11_49 am_Siding Sping

A parfocal image of the transit through a 70-mm lens telescope near mid-transit. Nick Lomb

Wonderful views of the transit were seen from Siding Spring Observatory, the home of Australia’s largest telescopes, near the town of Coonabarabran in NSW.

I was with a coach load of 50 people organised by the Australian Museum and co-led by one of the country’s best-known and most popular astronomers, Professor Fred Watson. The group had spent three days visiting Australia’s main astronomical establishments, starting with the historic Sydney Observatory and then followed by Tidbinbilla Deep Space Tracking Station, Mt Stromlo Observatory and the Parkes Radio Telescope. There was even a stop at Goulburn to see the site of one of the observing stations set up for the 1874 transit by Henry Chamberlain Russell of Sydney Observatory.

Observing the transit from Siding Spring ObservatoryClick here for video

Observing the transit from Siding Spring Observatory. Nick Lomb

The weather was cloudy with occasional light rain during the first two days and everyone on board the coach was on tenterhooks about the weather for the transit. Fortunately, on Wednesday morning we woke in Coonabarabran to a beautiful clear sky and it stayed that way during the half an hour trip up to the top of Siding Spring Mountain.

There Fred had chosen an observing site behind the UK Schmidt Telescope and had two telescopes set up ready for the group. I quickly set up my own little 70 mm refractor and all was readiness for the start of the transit. The slight indentation of Venus on the edge of the Sun was seen at first contact followed 18 minutes later by second contact. With the Sun low in the sky both Fred and myself thought that there was a slight touch of dark haziness between Venus and the edge of the Sun at second contact – a manifestation of the infamous ‘black drop effect’.

Toasting the 2012 transit of Venus

Toasting the transit. Nick Lomb

To add to the feeling of occasion one of the group played the bagpipes that he had brought along with him. Not only was there the sound of bagpipes, but the tour organiser Marnie thoughtfully provided champagne so that we could toast the transit and some of the many people associated with the transit during its long history.

Later there was time for a tour of the mountain that is now crowded with telescopes including the SkyMapper which is an automated survey telescope. Fred took the group through the 3.9 metre Anglo-Australian Telescope, of which he is Astronomer-in-Charge. This was followed by a tour of the UK Schmidt Telescope that I missed as I wanted to spend some time observing and reflecting on the transit on my own. At mid-transit light cloud started to come in. This was actually useful for me as it allowed my compact digital camera to cope with the brightness of the Sun and finally allowed a few useable photographs.

Nick Lomb at Siding Spring Observatory

Nick Lomb rugged up for the conditions at Siding Spring Observatory with the dome of the Anglo-Australian Telescope in the background. Nick Lomb

The coach left before the final two contacts as the plan was to observe them from a picnic spot on the way back to Sydney. We arrived at the designated spot in time, but there cloud covered the entire sky and there was no sign of the Sun. Still the bagpipes played a lament at 2:44 pm AEST as Venus left the Sun for the last time this century.

We had seen most of the transit in near perfect conditions from Siding Spring Observatory and I cannot think of a better place to have watched the rare event. I feel privileged and very happy to have successfully observed two transits of Venus.

This post has also appeared (without the video) on the Transit of Venus website

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