Clouds part for Transit of Venus from Princeton University


Despite a horrendous weather forecast, the clouds parted – at least partially – just in the nick of time for a massive crowd of astronomy and space enthusiasts gathered at Princeton University to see for themselves the dramatic start of the Transit of Venus shortly after 6 p.m. EDT as it arrived at and crossed the limb of the Sun.

And what a glorious view it was for the well over 500 kids, teenagers and adults who descended on the campus of Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey for a viewing event jointly organized by the Astrophysics Dept and the Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP), the local astronomy club to which I belong.

See Transit of Venus astrophotos snapped from Princeton, above and below by Astrophotographer and Prof. Bob Vanderbei of Princeton U and a AAAP club member.

Transit of Venus snapped from Princeton University - full sized image
This photo was taken with a Questar telescope at 6:26 p.m. on June 5, 2012 - it’s a stack of eight - 2 second images. Stacking essentially eliminates the clouds. Hundreds attended the Transit of Venus observing event organized jointly by Princeton University Astrophysics Dept and telescopes provided by the Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP), local astronomy club. Credit: Robert Vanderbei

It was gratifying to see so many children and whole families come out at dinner time to witness this ultra rare celestial event with their own eyes – almost certainly a last-in-a-lifetime experience that won’t occur again for another 105 years until 2117. The crowd gathered on the roof of Princeton’s Engineering Dept. parking deck – see photos

Excited crowd witnesses last-in-a-lifetime Transit of Venus from campus rooftop on Princeton University. Onlookers gathered to view the rare Transit of Venus event using solar telescopes provided by the Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP) and solar glasses provided by NASA and lectures from Princeton University Astrophysics Dept.
Credit: Ken Kremer

For the next two and a half hours until sunset at around 8:30 p.m. EDT, we enjoyed spectacular glimpses as Venus slowly and methodically moved across the northern face of the sun as the racing clouds came and went on numerous occasions, delighting everyone up to the very end when Venus was a bit more than a third of the way through the solar transit.

Indeed the flittering clouds passing by in front of Venus and the Sun’s active disk made for an especially eerie, otherworldly and constantly changing scene for all who observed through about a dozen AAAP provided telescopes properly outfitted with special solar filters for safely viewing the sun.

Kids of all ages enjoy the Transit of Venus from a rooftop at Princeton University. Solar telescopes provided by the Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton (AAAP), solar glasses provided by NASA and lectures from Princeton University Astrophysics Dept. Credit: Ken Kremer

As part of this public outreach program, NASA also sent me special solar glasses to hand out as a safe and alternative way to directly view the sun during all solar eclipses and transits through your very own eyes – but not optical aids such as cameras or telescopes.

Transit of Venus snapped from Princeton University - quarter sized image
This photo was taken with a Questar telescope at 6:26 p.m. on June 5, 2012 - it’s a stack of eight - 2 second images. Credit: Robert Vanderbei

Altogether the Transit lasted 6 hours and 40 minutes for those in the prime viewing locations such as Hawaii – from where NASA was streaming a live Transit of Venus webcast.

You should NEVER look directly at the sun through any telescopes or binoculars not equipped with special eye protection – because that can result in severe eye injury or permanent blindness!

We in Princeton were quite lucky to observe anything because other astro friends and fans in nearby areas such as Philadelphia, PA and Brooklyn, NY reported seeing absolutely nothing for this last-in-a-lifetime celestial event.

Transit of Venus enthusiasts view the solar transit from Princeton University rooftop using special solar glasses provided by NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer

Princeton’s Astrophysics Department organized a series of lectures prior to the observing sessions about the Transit of Venus and how NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope currently uses the transit method to detect and discover well over a thousand exoplanet and planet candidates – a few of which are the size of Earth and even as small as Mars, the Red Planet.

NASA’s Curiosity rover is currently speeding towards Mars for an August 6 landing in search of signs of life. Astronomers goal with Kepler’s transit detection method is to search for Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone that could potentially harbor life !

So, NASA and astronomers worldwide are using the Transit of Venus in a scientifically valuable way – beyond mere enjoyment – to help refine their planet hunting techniques.

Doing an outreach program for NASA, science writer Dr Ken Kremer distributes special glasses to view the transit of Venus across the sun during a viewing session on the top level of a parking garage at the E-quad at Princeton University to see the transit of Venus across the sun on Tuesday evening, June 5, 2012. Michael Mancuso/The Times

Historically, scientists used the Transit of Venus over the past few centuries to help determine the size of our Solar System.

See more event photos from the local daily – The Trenton Times – here

And those who stayed late after sunset – and while the Transit of Venus was still visibly ongoing elsewhere – were treated to an extra astronomical bonus – at 10:07 p.m. EDT the International Space Station (ISS) coincidentally flew overhead and was visible between more break in the clouds.

The International Space Station (ISS) flew over Princeton University at 10:07 p.m. on June 5 after the sun had set but while the Transit of Venus was still in progress. Credit: Ken Kremer
Transit Of Venus image from Hinode Spacecraft. Click to enlarge. Credit: JAXA/NASA/Lockheed Martin/enhanced by Marco Di Lorenzo

Of course clouds are no issue if you’re watching the Transit of Venus from the ISS or the Hinode spacecraft. See this Hinode Transit image published on APOD on June 9 and enhanced by Marco Di Lorenzo.

This week, local NY & NJ residents also had another extra special space treat – the chance to see another last-in-a-lifetime celestial event: The Transit of Space Shuttle Enterprise across the Manhattan Skyline on a seagoing voyage to her permanent new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.

Ken Kremer

Kepler Spacecraft Back in Action After Computer Glitch


NASA’s Kepler spacecraft is back in planet-hunting action after a computer malfunction put it into “safe mode” for 144 hours (six days.) The anomaly occurred on March 14, 2011 immediately after the spacecraft issued a network interface card (NIC) reset command to start a computer program update. During the reset, the NIC sent invalid reaction wheel data to the flight software, which caused the spacecraft to enter the self-protecting safe mode. The NIC is the interfaces between the spacecraft’s flight software, attitude determination, and its control subsystems and sensors. Mission managers said an anomaly response team will continue to evaluate the spacecraft data to determine the cause of the safe mode event.

A safe mode is a measure the spacecraft takes to protect itself when something unexpected occurs. Kepler mission managers described what happens during a safe mode event:

“During safe mode, the spacecraft points the solar panels directly at the sun and begins to slowly rotate along a sun-aligned axis. This safe mode orientation provides the vehicle with the maximum power and limits the buildup of momentum from solar wind. The spacecraft also swapped to its backup subsystem interface box (SIB), an electronics component that provides thermal and power distribution control to all spacecraft subsystems, and powered off the photometer, the instrument used to measure light intensity to detect planets. This is a normal procedure when the spacecraft enters safe mode.”

Kepler spacecraft returned to science data collection at 2:45 p.m. EDT Sunday, March 20, 2011.

Kepler launched in 2009 to look for alien worlds, hoping to find one like Earth in the just-right “Goldilocks Zone” around another star. So far, Kepler has discovered 1,235 possible planets, with 54 of those candidates in that potential habitable zone where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface. Further study is needed to see if any of these planets have the potential to harbor life.

But given how many potential habitable planets were found in just one area of the sky, astronomers have estimated that our Milky Way galaxy could hold as many as 50 billion alien planets, with 2 billion of those being about the size of Earth.

Stay tuned!

Source: Kepler