Tuesday, June 08, 2004

There's a little black spot on the sun today

At least, there was

Well, it was like Christmas morning if I had to chase Santa down in my pickup across four counties cussing at him all the way.

Headed up the hill to my preselected viewing spot at the local airsrip 30 minutes before sunrise, only to see that a line of distant thunderheads was occupying the eastern horizon. So I pointed myself west as fast as I could get away with... into hills and hollers and deep woods... across the Tennessee River... fog, hills, trees. Considering that the transit was only scheduled to last for about 40 minutes after sunrise here it was a bit of a mad dash. Finally found the sun from a hilltop cemetery in Darden, about 40 miles west of home. Leaped from the truck, pointed the scope at the sun and frantically held up my sheet of white paper, focused the projected image...

And there she was. Perfect black circle creeping almost imperceptibly across the face of the sun, not quite to the edge yet. I watched about the last 20 minutes of the transit as the black disk touched and slowly melted into the blackness around the sun. At 6:24 CDT (11:24 GMT) the sun's rim was again smooth and undented.

I should have anticipated the desperation run, it seems to be a hallmark of most of my astronomical excursions.

Way back when I was a wee thing, long before I hit puberty, I spent a lot of time buried deep in science and nature books. In those early years I seem to have acquired a list of upcoming astronomical events that I really really wanted to see. As I got a little older the checklist became more overtly recognized. The great pearly eclipse that happens once a Saros cycle (on the threshold between total and annular, the sun reduced to a circle of blazing specks of light peeking through the valleys on the moon's rim) got things started. In my childhood all I knew was it was due back in something like 1984. I was more than a little shocked in 1980 when I found out that this eclipse was due to happen directly over my home town of Atlanta on its next recurrence. By strange circumstances it just so happened that in 1984 I was back in Atlanta. When the final predictions came out in the last few months before the eclipse the predicted path of the eclipse was passing right through my front yard, in a coincidence I have never quite gotten over (the eclipse track was 3 miles wide and could have landed anywhere on earth). Eclipse day was was utterly cloudless with a cobalt blue sky. By the time the 8 second long central eclipse happened the yard was filled by me, my family, my coworkers, the neighbors, a mom and two kids who had collided with a biker right in front of our house in the confusingly dim eclipse light, the biker, and the cops who had responded to the accident. For a few glorious seconds we were bathed in rippling shadow bands while a diamond necklace as bright as the sun hung in the sky over our heads.

The rest haven't been so easy. Halley's Comet inspired a 2000 mile trek to Big Bend which at that time had the darkest southern-est skies in the US, and we were well rewarded. The 7-minute-long total eclipse of the sun in 1991 triggered an even longer international road trip across the fattest part of Mexico, rewarding us with a total eclipse overhead, the pacific to our west, the mountains capped with thunderstorms to our east. A spur of the moment run from Colorado to Texas in 1994 to see an Annular eclipse took us through tennis-ball sized hail, freeways flooded a foot deep, landing us in the municipal park in downtown Borger TX where the divinely perfect circle of sunlight was filtered through high clouds in a magnificent scene. The 1999 Leonid meteor shower was not such an adventure, only requiring a little juggling with my dispatcher to land me in the deserts of central UT on the right night.

As I was making the unscheduled wild ride this morning, I realized the transit of venus in 2004 is the last item on my childhood list. I never looked any farther in the future than this... I'm in uncharted territory now


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