Image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Click here to access some amazing videos.
The Venus Transit of June 5-6, 2012, was the second to occur in this century. The first, that of June 8, 2004, had been the first to be witnessed since 1882.
I had relied on my computer for live images in both cases. My location in 2004 kept me from getting a direct look. This year it was weather.
But oh, how the Web has changed in those eight years! In 2004 I sat alone in a darkened room, waiting for images to load. This year felt more like watching a party by remote.
Journal entry on June 8, 2004. I had begun writing at 4:45 a.m. Eastern.
I've been on the Web all night, watching the transit of Venus -- downloading an image every so often, watching a black dot meander across the face of a disc that is white, or blue, or red, or gray, depending on whose broadcast I'm watching. Mostly I've kept to one from Trondheim, Norway -- the one with the blue sun.
The light gray sun from Oslo is also pretty neat: the full disc, swathed sometimes in dark gray clouds, though the sky there looks pretty clear now.
For a while I was able to surf through similar sites in France, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, China, South Africa -- until the sites took longer and longer to load or came back with error messages; perhaps the ether became too crowded. The images are mainly the same save for different color filters and zooms, or the sun turned different ways. The Astronet site lists additional Webcasts from Austria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Iran, Italy, Japan, Macao, Montenegro, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Reunion, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, United Kingdom, USA, and Earth orbit.
Wherever they came from, I was sitting through the dark of night in a quiet room, looking at live pictures of the blazing sun that in most cases was almost half a world away. And the little dot making its slow, six-plus-hour amble. Howdy, neighbor.
I've greeted Venus in the morning and evening skies, watched as it rose to brilliant heights at maximum elongation. Been dazzled when it kept close company with a crescent moon. I've observed its phases through the telescope. I've seen it compete with Jupiter to see who's brightest (Venus usually wins), witnessed the dazzlement upset when Mars took charge last year, a red flash in the pan.
This is different: a modest pas de deux. Small black marble trolling across a great, blinding expanse.
I try to imagine what it's like to be at one of the earthbound locations, on-site. The large gatherings of observers training telescopes and other instruments at the event, excited murmurs in multiple languages. The last time this happened was 122 years ago.
Mary and I were both up for the beginning, or close to it: Venus taking a small, then a larger bite out of the side of the sun, moving in further, then further still, until it was completely surrounded by the sun's disc -- though for a few minutes it seemed to trail a faint line back to the solar limb. About a half hour later Mary went to bed. I continued to hold vigil.
Around here the sun rises at 6:31, leaving about a half-hour remaining before Venus exits the solar disc. We have a telescope and a solar filter, but we also have trees, houses, and most likely clouds to block the view. I'll check the sky but I don't hold out much hope. Watching the event by remote is magical in itself.
5:45 a.m. Morning birds begin to chorus. The successive pictures I've downloaded of the transit make the sun look like a Buddha belly doing a pirouette, shifting its black navel from left to right.
At 6 the alarm goes off. Mary awakens blearily, comes into the studio to squint at the latest picture. In a half hour I'll see if it's worth it to set up the telescope.
"Admit it," she says. "You've been up all night."
"Of course I admit it," I say, grinning -- and now dressed. The sky begins to lighten. It is afternoon in Norway.
6:35 a.m. The sun is up -- but with those trees I estimate it'll be at least an hour before it shows its pretty face. Back to the Web. (Mary estimates more like 35 minutes, but that would still be too late.) The squirrels are up and chittering.
By about 7:20 a.m. Venus was completely away from the sun's disc and I was off to bed.
Fast-forward to June 5, 2012.
For days Mary and I had checked the weather. The day of the transit gave us solid cloud cover and spurts of rain. We shut off our computers and surge suppressors as thunderstorms rolled in.
I turned my computer back on after the storms passed and joined in when this year's transit was already underway. As in 2004, I watched the event to the end, which came at 12:49 a.m. Eastern. Mary had gone to bed around 11.
Until then, she said that watching the webcast had been "like going on a field trip or a vacation." There had been no streamed interviews or live commentary back in 2004. No buzzing chat rooms. No gorgeous video.
This time around I collected screen caps from the NASA Edge webcast at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, where scientists and science fans battled high-altitude wind and cold. Where thin oxygen for six-plus hours made people punchy as a bright sky darkened toward a colorful dusk.
After this year's transit ended I dug out my old images from Norway and put this video together -- with help from Eddie H's beautiful song "Itsakataris." Best watched in fullscreen mode:
21st Century Venus Transits
Also included are a couple of my own photographs, taken from my driveway or from down the block this past March, when Venus danced with Jupiter and the Moon.
The Web has changed so much in eight years. So, too, the world.
The next Venus transit occurs in 2117. I can try to imagine what conditions will be like, but for better or for worse I know reality will far outrace me.