Transit of a Lifetime: CSU Researchers Track Venus from Mongolia, Australia, Utah

cover of fall 2012 issue of Focus magazine      From Focus magazine, Fall 2012 >>

By John Lester

In the middle of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, the annual rainfall is measured in millimeters. Yet, after traveling more than 7,000 miles, rigging a power supply that would pass zero electrical codes, setting up thousands of dollars in telescopes and buying satellite time to record a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event, staffers from Columbus State’s Coca-Cola Space Science Center saw clouds begin covering the sky as a storm moved in.

About 4,800 miles to the southeast, another center team also was setting up telescopes. Partnering with NASA, they were at a school in Alice Springs, Australia, trying to get the best possible images of Venus passing between the Earth and the sun. And then the Internet connection in Australia suddenly went down. Reports from all over the country started coming in, saying a road worker in the northern territory cut a cable that provided service to half the island nation.Transit of Venus composite

A third team — a Columbus State student in Utah — was recording Venus with a camera hooked up to a telescope, using her camera to send back images to Georgia. And then her camera battery started dying.

But wait, there’s more.

Back home in Columbus, another team was setting up telescopes and computers on the roof of a downtown parking garage, and when they plugged everything in to a building next door, the circuit breaker blew. And then it clouded over.

But this is not a story of futility or frustration. Despite these challenges and many more, researchers from Columbus State’s space science center who spread out across the world ultimately were successful in their quest to photograph, video and webcast Venus as it moved across the face of the sun in June, a celestial event called the Transit of Venus that won’t occur again for another 105 years.

The stunning images they captured, and the lengths they went to capture them, attracted worldwide attention for a CSU educational outreach center in downtown Columbus that strives to inspire “ongoing exploration and discovery as the region’s premier location for handson, inquiry-based STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education by providing accessible, innovative and dynamic experiences to schoolchildren, university students and the general public.”

According to Google, Columbus State’s Coca-Cola Space Science Center was mentioned in more than 3,400 media reports around the globe during the week of the Transit of Venus. And the images they recorded and put online for the center’s Transit of Venus webcast attracted more than 1.4 million unique visitors.

“It was an amazing achievement,” said Shawn Cruzen, executive director of CSU’s Coca-Cola Space Science Center and a Columbus State astronomy professor. “There’s no way I would have jumped into this without the team we have here. I think we did CSU proud.”

Road Trips

Planning for these simultaneous efforts began more than a year ago. The 2012 Transit of Venus would last for about seven hours on June 5-6, providing extraordinary viewing opportunities. Unfortunately, audiences in the continental U.S. would only see a portion of the transit as the sun sets in the west, so space center staff started thinking about where they could go to capture the transit. They needed locations where the transit could be viewed for several hours and places most likely to have clear skies.

“We had initially discussed Alaska and Hawaii as potential sites, but NASA was already organizing a strong team for Hawaii; so, we started looking at other ideal viewing locations that would provide diverse coverage of the event,” said Mary Johnson, assistant director of CSU’s Coca-Cola Space Science Center. “In December, we decided on Alice Springs, Australia, and began reaching out to potential educational partners in the area. Then, in February, during a visit with representatives from the International Space School Education Trust, we learned about an incredible opportunity to join their leadership adventure to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.”

During their plans to make the transit more accessible to the public, the team also forged a partnership with NASA to provide images. So Columbus State would not only be providing their own multi-continent webcast of the 2012 Transit of Venus, the space science center would be the only university-affiliated institution partnering with NASA to provide images from remote locations for NASA’s webcast.
As planning for these transcontinental road trips started coming together, the teams’ to-do lists were plagued by questions:
  • How do you safely deliver delicate cameras, computers and telescopes (not to mention people) to the Gobi Desert?
  • How can you send images from Australia and Mongolia back to Georgia, and also to NASA?
  • How do all the team members on different continents communicate with each other?
  • How can the center and CSU make the most out of the trips to these different countries?
  • How do you get power to a computer while in a tent city in the sand?
  • How do you handle the extra hits on websites from people logging in to watch the transit?
Obviously, a lot of the issues were technology-related. But once again, the to-do list of problems turned into a string of accomplishments. Corporate technology partners Hewlett Packard, General Dynamics Itronix, SHI and AT&T signed on to successfully augment the computer know-how of the space center’s team and the university’s IT department.

Because of those connections, at one point or another for about eight hours that night, the space center’s website was showing images of the transit, either from Utah, Columbus, Australia or Mongolia. Additionally, a crowd of spectators at the space center in downtown Columbus was able to see some of the transit by themselves through telescopes.

CSU students also were involved, from the computer science majors who were helping with the computers and imagery at the center, to Kate Lodder, a senior who sent images from Bryce Canyon in Utah, where she was on a prestigious internship with GeoCorps America to help with educational programming in geology and astronomy.

It was a worldwide example of the center’s efforts to engage people “in a way that their experience ignites a fire of curiosity — a spark — that opens a door to further scientific exploration and discovery,” Johnson said.

If no such impression was made on the 1.4 million visitors who watched the transit online, the space center’s team certainly made an impact on a former
space shuttle commander who was part of the team that led the Mongolia expedition.

“He told me, ‘From the middle of nowhere, what I just saw a team of 10 people accomplish — I know teams of 40 to 50 people that could not have pulled that off,’” Johnson said. “This is a man who has been to the International Space Station, and he was floored with what we were able to accomplish.”

Teamwork Triumph

Johnson, Cruzen and Scott Norman, director of the space center’s Challenger Learning Center, were on the Mongolia trip, which was a leadership and team-building training exercise, as well as an astronomical adventure. The group spent days traveling desert paths — not roads — and stayed in makeshift tent cities.

“If you broke down out there, you would just die. You could literally go for hundreds of kilometers and not see anything,” said Norman, comparing the landscapes to images from Mars.

As Cruzen put it, “We chose the most difficult location on planet Earth to pull this off.”

In Australia, life was more civilized for Lance Tankersley, the center’s Omnisphere Theater director, and Michael Johnson, its coordinator of external programming, who were working with a school in Alice Springs. By the end of their trip, they were being treated as celebrities.

Not only did they teach lessons on astronomy at the school for two days, they were interviewed by a national television network and were asked to make a presentation to the whole town when the transit was completed. The event was standing-room only.

“At the end of the community event, almost everyone stuck around to ask questions, and a few of them wanted our autographs,” Tankersley said.

The service interruption that stopped the team from transmitting images was not a cut cable (a rumor that even prompted an inquiry from CNN), but rather a computer glitch at the school that Johnson was able to quickly fix in plenty of time for his live appearance on NASA TV with a crowd of Australian schoolchildren behind him. Johnson and Tankersley made such an impression on the school, they were given Australian flags as mementos from their visit. Students and faculty signed the flags before they left.

As the team gathered in mid-June, together again for the first time in the comfortable confines of the space science center, there was a lot of laughter as they recapped the trips and swapped stories of their adventures. And there were a few wet eyes in the room as they thanked each other for the work that each did to pull all the pieces together.

“In spite of everything that happened, there is not one single goal that we did not accomplish,” Mary Johnson said.

“It went beyond the transit,” said Chris Johnson, the center’s graphic artist and technology guru, who coordinated most of the efforts from Columbus. “It really did. The transit was awesome, but everything that happened as a result was awesome too.”
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Captions, from top to bottom:

CSU student Kate Lodder took individual images of Venus traversiung the sun with a solar telescope from Bryce Canyon in Utah, where she was a GeoCorps America intern. CSU student Cameron McCarty edited the images into this composite.

Shawn Cruzen prepares a telescope in Mongolia.

Michael Johnson does a TV interview in Australia.

Mary Johnson awaits dawn in the Gobi Desert.

Lance Tankersley pauses at an outback outpost.

CSU's Shawn Cuzen, Scott Norman and Mary Jo0hnson were part of this larger group sharing a leadership and team-building exercise in the Gobi Desert, where they tracked the Transit of Venus. Camel-riding was one of the group's activities.