It turns out that I failed utterly to understand much concerning Venus’ transit of the sun (as seen from Earth). Guess I didn’t pay enough attention to reporting in various print sources that shuffle through the house. Maybe you did, too, unless you belong to the Jackson Hole Astronomy Club or attended its viewing opportunity in Grand Teton National Park (a success, hosting up to about 300 people over the afternoon). As it turns out, TV promos aside, the transit takes many hours.

Venus makes a pair of transits of the sun — each about eight years apart — about once a century. That Venus does this at all was first recognized by Kepler. who predicted one to occur in 1627. That transits occur in pairs was confirmed in 1639 by Horrocks. The 1639 transit was the first recorded. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, the insights and conclusions of Galileo were revolutionizing astronomy for most. Turns out the planets orbit the sun, and Earth revolves on its axis daily.

Then, in 1716, Halley figured out how a Venus transit could be used to calculate how far Earth is from the sun. In 1769, worldwide observation determined it’s 95 million miles. Refined, it’s 93 million miles.

Last week’s Venus transit was only the seventh ever recorded. Recorded by instruments on Earth and in space unimaginable by those 17th-century astronomers and their prehistoric forebears. Remember that image of a small round Venus moving across a much larger sun disk? Two NASA spacecraft measured the drop in solar energy reaching Earth during transit. It was anticipated to have been one-tenth of 1 percent.

In the 2004 Venus transit, another NASA spacecraft discovered Venus’ atmosphere. The atmosphere was scheduled for new study during this year’s six-hour-long transit. The Hubble Space Telescope was watching for some exotic effect that eludes me. A person can get too involved in details and forget to appreciate the beauty and wonder of it all.

Astronomy and astrophysics are exciting fields today. New telescopes, spacecraft, the Hubble, new discoveries have made enormous differences: The universe is expanding, and fast. How? Why? Something called “dark energy.” What is it?

It’s almost to the point that inner space — say, the solar system we’re in — is ... well, old stuff. Since the universe is incomprehensible (to me), I enjoy that — ah, local stuff. The moon, the planets, the sun, the constellations, the occasional comet. An asteroid, perhaps?

Pretty much everyone now understands that Earth orbits the sun, not the reverse. Possibly hurt man’s ego a tad, but what the hay! Man still thinks he dominates the Earth. In any case, a person can feel the power of our sun in many ways.

A favorite common yet private way of mine used to be awakening in a cold, old, damp canvas tent before dawn, being occupied outside in a couple of inches of fresh show, and then shifting to catch the first of the sun’s warmth. Good feeling.

By the by, that good feeling can be experienced without the cold tent or the new snow, even without fresh coffee with a nip of Jack Daniels. A south-facing window can work at times.

Field Notes: The sun “came out” for just long enough to change a blustery chilly Saturday morning into a warm, calm, bird watcher’s good day. For a dozen or so Nature Mappers, led by Susan Patla and Megan Smith, birds and flowers made for a dandy morning. Two dozen bird species, many singing in the sun and providing good observations: golden-crowned kinglets feeding young, many warbling vireos, olive-sided flycatcher, etc.

South Park feed-ground’s wetlands now sport eight trumpeter swan cygnets (Susan Patla). One observer terms a newly hatched cygnet “the cutest thing in the world.” No real argument here.

Magpies, having been quiet for weeks — almost silent, in fact — are now quite vocal, giving instructions to their fledglings. I imagine other birds are calling and singing, too, based on memory and reason.

Eurasian collared doves are so new to this continent — a few decades only — that there’s much to learn of their natural history. Natalie Faith watched Thursday as a Eurasian collared dove settled on a wetland at the visitors center on North Cache in Jackson and floated as would a gull. My stars!

The parade of wildflower blooms becomes a quick-step. Official summer is just days away.

A poorwill’s calls were heard from the National Elk Refuge’s Miller House on June 3 and 4 (Carl Brown). Cold wet weather stopped the vocalization on succeeding nights. Missy Falcey welcomed a male lazuli bunting to her feeder.

So far, Bullock’s orioles and Western tanagers are hard to come by. Maybe they will show up in force yet.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has designated the common loon and great gray owl as species of special interest. So, in addition to reporting any sightings this year and next to Susan Patla, Game and Fish nongame biologist, in Jackson at 733-2321 or the appropriate district office, contact, too. Appreciate it.

© Bert Raynes 2012


Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.

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