A Day At the Museum

I was at the American Museum of Natural History, on the Central Park West steps, using the Volunteer Department’s donated 6″ f/8 Dobsonian with a Baader filter. I was joined by AAA member Jorge Colorado and a museum staffer named Jonathan Ullman from the Education Department. They both had tripod-mounted refractors with glass solar filters that displayed the Sun as orange. Jon had a setup to display the view on a laptop screen.

We all were set up by 7:30 a.m., but the sun was mostly hidden behind the branches of the Central Park trees for about the first hour or so. Once it emerged above the trees, we had great views in a clear sky. The sky remained clear until about noon or thereabouts, when some thin cloud started to interfere a little. That gradually worsened toward the end of the transit, but was never too bad. Clouds actually prevented viewing for only a few minutes from time to time. They did reduce the contrast, though; so the black dot on the white sun became a dark gray dot on a light gray, mottled sun.

The seeing wasn’t great. There was a lot of rippling along the solar limb, and Mercury sometimes seemed to split into twin images that danced back and forth a little. I mostly stuck to a 25mm Plössl eyepiece to get a satisfying 50x view of the whole solar disk.

The museum was open, of course, but most of the staff had the holiday off, so we didn’t have the tremendous number of museum workers lining up for views that we had in May 2016 for the last Mercury transit. Despite the holiday, the number of visitors to the museum didn’t seem to be huge that day. We got a lot of attention, with occasional lines forming at the telescopes; but I don’t think there were ever more than a dozen people on line at my scope at any one time: typically, more like a half dozen.

Viewers included a lot of families with kids, museum visitors from as far away as New Zealand, and some people who weren’t museum visitors but were neighborhood residents or passersby. A very few people said they had come just for the viewing, having heard about it from one source or another. We also had a few veterans come around on this Veterans’ Day, a couple of whom had interesting stories about the glorious pitch-dark, star-filled skies they had seen on deployment in various parts of the world.