As a species, we now believe we’re gaining knowledge of our solar system, our universe. In any case, there are celestial events that can be predicted with astonishing accuracy. Comes now versatile Walt Farmer, co-founder of the Jackson Hole Astronomy Club, to inform us of several events coming right up. Walt writes:

In honor of Uncle Bert’s well-known and oft-documented love of the Hubble Space Telescope, I appreciate this opportunity to sub in his column today with information on multiple things solar going on right now. Specifically, the current increase in the solar sunspot cycle, an annular eclipse over Jackson Hole and the upcoming event known as the Venus transit.

However, I won’t be writing this column in longhand like Bert, nor will I be as clever in style.

All this is approximate, but about every five to six years, the level of sunspot activity increases or decreases, constituting roughly an 11-year cycle. We’re on the upswing of that cycle, with the peak of activity expected next spring in what is known as Solar Cycle 24. Every 22 years, the sun totally reverses its north-south polarity, and the cycles continue. A number of websites graphically illustrate this activity in various wavelengths of light that are fairly fascinating to watch in image or movie form as the sun rotates its face to Earth.

If it’s simply hot in summer and cold in winter, so what? you ask. Well, here’s where it gets fun. The accumulation of more and more sunspots during this cycle, due to the rotational twisting in the sun’s convective zone, demonstrate the sun’s magnetic intensity. This in turn generates other activities, such as prominences, flares and coronal mass ejections that, if they’re ejected when facing Earth, can be a source of serious concern to spaceship Earth’s inhabitants and of transcendent beauty in our upper atmosphere.

While light travels to us in seconds, it takes a few days for the solar wind to carry these charged particles to Earth to interact with our magnetosphere, which largely protects us mortals from potentially dire ill effects. Astronauts on the space station are in some jeopardy, but NASA protects them with substantive shielding and various forms of governmental magic. While usually deflected, these particles will still impact our satellites and affect the likes of GPS, cellphone communications and power grids here on Earth. As the solar cycle increases, so does the opportunity for things going kablooey. After all, the energy of one good coronal mass ejection is the equivalent of perhaps a billion hydrogen bombs going off at once. So, there’s probably an app to provide warning of such mischief, and it’s best to get it now.

On the other hand, as Earth deflects these particles, it won’t deflect them all, and the probable visual result can be spectacular. Perhaps you remember the solar activity manifested over Jackson on a March night in 2001, when the sky was intermittently ablaze with orange flares, red streaks and white arcs over Yellowstone National Park and green curtains over the Tetons. This was magic to our ancestors, was very impressive and likely will be again. There are apps and Web pages for aurora (northern lights) alerts, too.

The Jackson area will be in the path of the next annular eclipse of the sun on Sunday. Here, the apparent diameter of the moon is slightly smaller than the sun, but it will block out much of the sun’s disc. However, wiping out 80 percent of the sun won’t provide any visible effect to us Earth dwellers, unless you have proper solar filtration devices to watch this eclipse. See below for a viewing possibility. Do not attempt to look at the sun directly, as permanent eye damage can occur.

On the afternoon of June 5, the specter of Venus will cross the face of the sun over a five-plus-hour transit. You’ll need a small telescope with a special filter to view this passage, which won’t occur again until 2117, so why wait? It will be special to watch or photograph and will be seen live over the Internet if you’re telescope-deprived. NASA will use Bert’s beloved Hubble to watch this event — by pointing it at the moon! NASA will analyze a small portion of the reflected light of the sun representing Venus and then be able to extrapolate possible elements of other planets orbiting other stars.

The Jackson Hole Astronomy Club will be cooperating with Grand Teton National Park, probably at the Willow Flats turnout, in the hours before sunset Sunday to watch the annular eclipse and again the afternoon of June 5, same place, for the Venus transit. Come join us for a real treat. For information, go online to

Field Notes: Spring, Franz Camenzind remarks, incudes a “frenzy of procreation.” Indeed.

Franz has a song sparrow nest with hatchlings and a first Western tanager, on Thursday in Jackson. Bald eagles have chicks, osprey should be on eggs, and it’s past time for Canada geese to have goslings. A busy, busy time in the spring, challenges and opportunities for wildlife observations galore.

Greg and Dimmi Zeigler reported a Lewis’ woodpecker on suet Friday. This is a large woodpecker species not reported often in Jackson Hole. About 11 inches in length, dark black-backed with a prominent pink belly and a hard-to-see red face patch. The bird also has a gray collar. Pretty showy.

Spring is a show-off.

© 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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