The transit of Venus from Selsey

The Sky at Night’s Paul Abel travelled to Selsey to watch the transit of Venus with Patrick Moore. But did the clouds part?

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Image Credit: 
Chris Newsome

 

Early last month, the telephone rang. A familiar voiced boomed “Hello Paul, Patrick here! Now, what are you doing for the transit?” It was a good question, and one I'd been mulling over for a few months now. My Ph.D was close to submission, so too is my book; leaving the country for any length of time, therefore, was clearly out of the question. From the UK, the best location was in the northeast, but given the well-deserved reputation this region has for being a cloud magnet, I wasn't at all confident we'd see anything. Selsey on the other hand is known for having its own micro-climate, and a transit party with Patrick was bound to be fun.

On 5 June with my partner Matthew (given the task of taking photos due to my hopeless lack of talent) we started the journey down to join Patrick and the rest of the transit party. There was quite a gathering of people including fellow 'Sky at Nighter' Jon Culshaw, Damian Peach and fabulous actor Nicola Bryant. The journey from Leicester was not at all encouraging. As we headed south, the sunny skies started to fill with clouds. By the time we reached London, it was overcast; by the time we reached Chichester, it was raining heavily.

We were soon ensconced in Farthings. As we drank various assorted cocktails, I couldn't help but notice that a strong wind had picked up and was lashing the rain against the sides of the house. Patrick claimed to have made a secret incantation to clear the skies, and Jon – ever the optimist – was adamant that nature would smile down on us and give us a brief view of the rare celestial event unfolding in the skies above. One of the guests, Robin Flegg had brought a delightful Venus transit cake, depicting the transit in icing. Frankly, I thought this was as about as close as we were going to get!

Credit: Chris Newsome

A break in the clouds affords the team a fleeting glance of the transit


After diner, Ninian Boyle set up a makeshift projector screen and we watched the NASA TV stream, which broadcast the start of the transit. When the transit started, the sun would still be below the horizon from UK latitudes (indeed, we would only catch the last hour or so from Selsey). As we watched, Venus made first contact with the Sun. As we approached second contact, I thought I could see the 'teardrop' effect. Damian and Ninian thought it might be there too, no doubt due to the lower resolution and the poor seeing. We were then joined by Sarah Cruddas, who was hoping to do a report for BBC 5 Live.

By 11.30pm, the rain had stopped and we decided it would be a good idea to get some sleep. We made plans to get up at 3.50am and go over to East Beach, the best location in Selsey to observe the transit from. From that point, sunrise is relatively unobstructed. For some reason I couldn't sleep a wink, and I counted down the minutes...

At 4am, after a gallon of tea, we assembled in Farthings, bleary eyed (except for Nicola and Patrick who seemed full of beans) and we made for East Beach. I looked out and couldn't believe it: there were large gaps in the clouds and the remaining clouds were speeding away, creating further holes! As we wandered through the deserted streets of Selsey it somehow felt strange and isolated – like being in the opening scenes of some alien invasion movie!

As we got to East Beach it looked as though the local conditions had been influenced by Patrick's incantation and Jon's sheer determination to see something: there was now a large break in the clouds. Telescopes and solar scopes were assembled and we were joined by locals, who hoped to see something. Chris Newsome of Derby Astronomical Society had his scope set up and ready, while Jamie Cooper and Damian set up near the lifeboat station.

The Sun had risen but it had yet to reach the gap in the clouds. We entered the final 10 minutes of the transit and I wondered again if we would actually see it. Finally, a gap appeared and we had a glimpse of the Sun. Chris and Jamie snapped away. We all took quick turns in peering through a solar scope. There it was, the beautiful Sun coloured by gorgeous red tones of hydrogen alpha and just near the limb, the unmistakable black circle of a planet in transit. I briefly wondered how long it would be before we had pictures like this, with our own Sun replaced by some other star and a distant alien world in transit.

We were all elated and headed back to Patrick's for champagne and some transit cake. In retrospect, yes we could have gone abroad to see the whole thing. But there was a certain Britishness about beating the odds and succeeding in seeing the transit from Selsey. To be there with Sir Patrick and the rest of the party added a certain magic, which I wouldn't have missed for the world.

Credit: Jamie Couper

Celebrating the transit of Venus in style


 

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