Boland skywatcher all set for Venus

When he turns his telescopes towards the sun on Tuesday, Boland skywatcher Willie Koorts will be at least partly fulfilling the wishes of a long-dead astronomer.

He will be observing the transit of Venus, an event so rare that no person alive today has witnessed it, and doing so from almost the same spot in his home town Wellington as an American scientific expedition in 1882.

Koorts, a technician at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town, has spent seven years researching the visit of the Americans and of a British expedition which also came out to view the 1882 transit.

The Americans’ chief scientist, Prof Simon Newcomb, set up his instruments in the premises of what was then the Huguenot Seminary for Girls, anchoring them on two massive iron pillars and a concrete base.

The expedition left the pillars firmly embedded in the ground and Newcomb expressed a “sentimental wish” that even if the pillars disappeared, the next transit, in 2004, would be observed from at least the same place.

With the aid of Newcomb’s scientific report, recently unearthed from archives in Washington, Koorts has determined that the spot lies on a hockey field on what is now the Cape Technikon’s Wellington campus.

He said on Monday he had decided not to set up his telescopes on exactly the same place, as there was “a lot of long shadow” on the field in the morning.

Instead, he would be erecting his equipment on a nearby tennis court, and intended to at least hammer a commemorative stake into the spot on the field for the day.

He said he would set up his home-made nine inch reflector telescope, with a modified webcam attached, plus a small telescope projecting a 30cm to 40cm diameter image of the sun onto a screen, and an old refracting telescope with sun filter that could be used to view the transit directly.

Several other enthusiasts were likely to bring their own telescopes along, he said, and local schools would be sending classes to watch the transit of the planet.

Coincidentally, Koorts will on Tuesday have the company of a American scientist, physicist Professor George Tucker, who teaches an astronomy course at New York’s Sage Colleges.

Also there will be Beth Kruger of Stellenbosch, granddaughter of Mary Elizabeth Cummings, one of a group of Huguenot Seminary ladies who made their own observations of the 1882 transit alongside those of the Americans.

A cold front with rain hit the Cape over the weekend, but the cloudy weather was clearing on Monday, and the Cape Town weather office has predicted Tuesday will be partly cloudy.

“I’m just holding thumbs for the weather, which is our big uncertainty here, but it’s looking better by the moment,” Koorts said.

The transit occurs when Venus’ orbit takes it between the Earth and the Sun, so it appears as a tiny black dot tracking slowly across the solar surface.

Transits occur roughly a hundred years apart, and have for the past few hundred years been in closely-spaced pairs.

Everyone in South Africa will be able to see at least part of Tuesday’s event.

Because looking directly at the Sun can damage the eyes, people should either use approved eclipse glasses or layers of teabag foil, or view it projected through a telescope onto a screen. - Sapa


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