Thursday, June 7, 2012

Watching Venus Walk Across the Sun

"Have you looked outside?" a more-than-skeptical text flashed onto my phone.  To the east, clouds crashed on the Wasatch mountains, a scene I normally relish.  But Tuesday evening was my one chance in the next 121 years to see Venus pass across the sun, and no cloud was welcome.  The sky to the west looked less ominous, but by no means clear.

"Accu-weather says it will be clear by 8 pm, and the wind is blowing gusts of up to 60 miles per hour so the clouds are gonna get blown outta here," I retorted back.  "I'll let you know when I leave the office," I advised.

At just after 5:30 pm, I headed for Harmons Brickyard, where an unknown community group was reportedly gathering for Venus viewing.  My friend Joe, who'd bought our solar viewing sunglasses at lunchtime, beat me to the gathering of five or so telescope owners from the Salt Lake Astronomical Society.

The clouds over the Oquirrh Mountains to the west of the Salt Lake Valley were thick.  And although I'd left the house on what was a summery morning, by noon it was chilly, and by the time I got to Brickyard, it was downright cold.  We sat in the car and chatted with each other and everyone who called while we waited.  We intermittently tried on our glasses, but all we could see was a reflection of our eyeballs. 
This shot of Venus crossing the sun was taken from my hometown, Tempe, Arizona, by Stephen Rector

Every inch of progress at thinning the cloud cover was duly noted and cheered as the "prime viewing time" 7:25 pm MDT drew ever closer. As the clouds thinned, the crowd thickened and our princess parking spot was eclipsed by a lady with an SUV who blocked our view of the telescopes and the western sky.  Easy enough, we moved to a location that had been previously barricaded with yellow tape.  This was "okay," mainly because the wind had blown down the tape and we could drive right onto the closest parking spot to the Venus viewing area.

The clouds continued to move eastward but also to the north, revealing strips of bright blue sky and a million rays of splintered light that fanned to the Earth.  It was 7:20 pm and the sun was still covered.  Finally, about 7:40 pm, we saw a piece of the sun and tried out our solar viewing glasses.  Too cool.

I wrapped myself in my ex-bf's blanket (there are some things about a failed relationship that are worth hanging onto and that blanket is one of them).  We headed towards one of the huge telescopes set up in the Harmons parking lot and were among the first in line to get a peek at Venus making her way across the sun.

We did a bit of telescope hopping as the crowd grew.  It was sort of like trick or treating, only without candy or a costume.  Each 'scope yielded a slightly different view of a tiny black speck moving gingerly across the Sun.

For a few scintillating moments, I felt like I danced on the Sun, even from a distance millions of miles away.  It was indeed chilling, and not because of the cold wind whipping on my bare legs.  Seeing the wonders of nature reminds us that we are but a mere blip in the Universe, and we ought not to take ourselves or life too seriously.


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