Searching for Venus

 ... Stringers persevere, get that illusive shot

From the Stringer Photo Team

Yes, that's Venus all right. Not the big yellow ball -- that's a star called "Sun". Venus is that dark spot toward the right edge of Sun, seen flying several million miles above the surface of the star. The phenomenon is that Sun, Venus and Earth were all lined up that day, so that we earthlings were able to get a daylight picture of the closest, darkest side of Venus.

It takes a lot to haul one's aching body out of a nice warm bed at four o'clock in the morning. But what the heck, we're the SilverStringer Photo Team, and we wanted to see Venus in the daylight.

The occasion was Tuesday morning, June 8, and the papers had been full of stories  about a once-in-a-century celestial happening that was fast approaching. They said that Venus, the second-closest planet to the sun, would be passing immediately between the sun and the earth, giving us a rare daylight view of our twin planet -- twin in that Venus is about the same size as earth.

We figured that Mount Hood in Melrose -- a lofty peak almost 300 feet above the nearby Atlantic Ocean -- would be ideal, since we would have a clear view of the watery horizon to the east. The scientists said that it would take about six hours for Venus to traverse the sun, beginning sometime after midnight on Tuesday and gliding out of the sun's backlighting by about 6:30, here in New England.

That's all well and good, except there was a 200-foot layer of fog over Mount Hood. It was like soup when we arrived at 5:10 a,m., just as a gray light filtered through. Actually, we could see almost blue sky if we looked straight up, but that's not where the action was.

There were four of us: Shirley Rabb, Louise Fennell and Don and Lorry Norris. All were armed with a variety of digital cameras and tripods.

We were way too early considering the fog. We waited for half an hour, watching the sky. At 5:45 there was more light, but the sun, if it was there, failed to penetrate the mist. We stomped around in the cold, shot photos of our feet, each other, whatever we could to pass the time.

Lorry was the first to actually photograph the sun, at 6:01 a.m. But it was still too foggy to see Venus, which the papers told us would appear as a gray dot on the surface of the sun. Eight minutes later Don turned his lens on the Mount Hood tower, some 120 yards to the north. All his camera captured was a vague, ghostly outline against a gray monotone sky.

The fog seemed to be getting thicker, but the blue directly overhead was getting lighter. We were encouraged, now that we could see the sun, vaguely.

At 6:15 a lady walking her German Shepard came out of the fog, wondering who on earth would be out here on such a dismal morning. It was us. She had no idea that our Venus sighting was about to happen.

By this time the sun had risen to some 15 degrees off the horizon, but it was still too blurred to make out the small dot of Venus. In the meantime, all of us were making exposures every few minutes, for the next twenty minutes.

The problem was that we couldn't tell what we were getting. The digital screens were not detailed enough to see much more than vague shadows, a ball of light in a field of gray. But we kept shooting.

At one point Don broke out an eight-power monocular, and it was then that we were able to make out Venus, fast disappearing toward the right edge of the sun. It was there, we saw it.

We had no plan. Just shoot and hope something was there. We wouldn't know until we got back to the computers.

By 6:30, we'd had it, and we knew that Venus had just about finished its journey across the face of the sun. It was time to pack up, see if we couldn't get breakfast before several 8 a.m appointments. We walked the half mile back to the car -- ironically the gate was open now -- and we drove downtown to the Trackside Restaurant.

Several days later we had the work of all four team members on one CD, and into the hands of editor Don Norris. With both Corel PhotoPaint and Adobe Photoshop we were able to magnify the images to as much as 1600 times. And Venus was there, in most everyone's work.

We admit that we are getting lazy with these digital cameras, for they are so smart and do everything for you. If we had realized that we were getting a lot of flare from the sun, we could have underexposed our shots -- but, even so, we were able to get some surprisingly detailed photos.

Even though the group averaged about 71 years, there's enough energy and smart ideas to inspire many of our compatriots.

July 2, 2004

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