Good things come to those who wait

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This is the fifth post of Suzanne’s mission to Sweden for the Transit of Venus. The previous post is here.

It’s 2pm on the day after the transit, and I’m a little bleary-eyed. It was a long night, but it was worth it. I wasn’t so positive at 4.30am, three quarters of the way into the transit. A band of blue to the South-West had taunted us all night, but the Eastern sky remained determinedly cloudy, and the NASA webcast was as close as we thought we’d get to the transit. But then, very gradually, the skies parted, and we saw it!

But first things first. A few of us, brave or foolish, started the day with a run and a swim in a nearby lake, the iron-rich water a deep brown red – and icy cold. Then it was back to Floda for a round of brief introductions of everyone’s projects – too many to list them all here, but a few ideas appear again and again. One is the way in which the transit highlighs the passage of time, another the contrast between the sub-arctic landscape and the almost graphic nature of the event itself. And then there is the potentially recursive exploration of the way in which we observe the transit, record it, and then look at the images we made.

Lunchtime found us in the workshop, making final adjustments to our viewing preparations:

and putting the finishing touches to the monument/viewing platform, including the critical window, which is not – as I previously thought – welder’s glass, but solar viewing film stretched between two glass panes. Much of the afernoon was dedicated to the preparation of a group performance, just before the start of the transit, in the form of a procession structured around the orbits of the solar system planets, but also incorporating notions of orbital migration and planet-planet interactions, which had come up in dicussions of how our theories of planet formation have been affected by the discovery of exoplanets.

After dinner, while waiting for the transit to start, we were treated to a wonderful talk by Thijs, on the work and lives of three astronomers who played key roles in changing our conception of the solar system: Brahe, Kepler and Galileo. I’d never noticed the parallels between Brahe’s life and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but they are very striking. It was also fascinating to learn how Kepler, who briefly worked for Brahe before the latter’s death, made off with all the data Brahe had accumulated over twenty years of intensive and painstaking observations, before Brahe’s heirs thought to stop him. During his lifetime, Brahe didn’t trust Kepler, he wholeheartedly rejected the notion that planetary orbits were ellipses, and only allowed Kepler to access a very small portion of his observations. Had he not died then, Kepler might never have had the data he needed to conceive and demonstrate his famous laws.

After that I stepped in with a brief introduction to how what we knew of the solar system shaped our theories of planet formation before we started to discover exoplanets, but we soon switched over to the NASA webcast to see the start of the transit – which occured while the Sun was below the horizon in Sweden. Suitably stoked up by the enthusiasm of the webcast commentators, we headed out to the field in front of the monument, for the procession, timed to end just as the Sun would rise. The participants held torches and lit beacons symbolising the Sun and giant planets, and then fanned out to follow densely packed orbits, each close encounter leading to a brief interaction and a change of orbit. Accompanied by singing and drumbeat, it was both fun and moving, and I am eagerly waiting to see footage of it taken by intrepid climber Hugo from the top of the radio mast, which supplies Floda with a much faster internet connection than I have at home in Oxfordshire.

There followed tense hours of waiting by the campfire for the sky to clear…

…until, at last, the Sun began to show dimly though the clouds.

We rushed to the telescopes, and at first all anyone could make out was a fuzzy solar disk through the mylar window – it wasn’t strong enough to cast a projected image. A few of us thought they saw Venus through the binoculars, but the image was so blurred by clouds it was hard to be sure. And then, gradually, shadows began to appear on the ground and we could align and focus the telescopes, and there it was! Below is a picture of Abby pointing out Venus on my sun-funnel for Otto, the 7-month old son of Rich and Marije (who run Floda31):

… and here is a photo of Thijs’s home-made projection device, designed to give a smaller but brighter image:

The entire population of Floda – all twelve of them – came out to join us…

… and it was a merry 45 mins, as everyone got a good look, cameras clicked and rolled, and there was much whooping and ahing.

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About Author

I work on the detection of extrasolar planets (planets outside the solar system) via the transit method, and on the exploration of the time domain in astrophysics in general. I am particularly interested in finding and studying small (terrestrial, or even Earth-like) planets, and young planets (to understand how they form, and how their early evolution is influenced by their environment).