Monday, June 11, 2012

Transit of Venus in Lapland

Last week was the transit of Venus between Earth and the Sun. This is a rare phenomenon that occurs just twice in 120 years. The last time was in 2004, when I was able to observe it in Turku, and the next time is in 2117. While the event has little astronomical significance today, it was quite significant historically, as it was used to determine the scale of the solar system. As I'm a bit interested about the history of astronomy, this was something I didn't want to miss.

So, last Monday I packed my car and headed towards Lapland. Well, actually on Tuesday morning at 2 am, as packing took a bit longer than I had planned. I drove all night and all day, taking just a short nap. The weather was a big question. Most of the Southern Finland was clear, as was Lapland, but the forecasts were changing more quickly than I could drive with my car. I had to make my final decision at Sodankylä and head either towards Utsjoki in the "head" of Finland, or to Kilpisjärvi in the "arm". I chose the arm over the head.

I had never been at Kilpisjärvi before and it was quite beautiful area, in all its barredness. The Kilpisjärvi lake was still almost completely frozen and there were many groups of reindeer on the road.

As was almost expected, it was totally cloudy when I arrived in Kilpisjärvi at Midnight, just an hour before the transit would begin. So, with 1400 kilometers behind in 22 hours, I turned back. If I had not, I would probably have completely missed the event. After driving some 100 km, I got a very short peek of the Sun at around 01:15, just a bit after the transit had begun, but I had to drive yet another 100 km before I found an area free of clouds.

Well, there it was, the Midnight Sun, hovering low behind the hills. It was unfortunate that I had missed the beginning, because measuring the time from the first to fourth or second to third contact was how the scale of the solar system was calculated using the parallax between different latitudes on Earth.

So, I continued driving to East, trying to find even better spot, even one with other amateur astronomers. I knew there was a group in Saariselkä, on top of the Kaunispää fell, some 400 km away, but while driving there I encountered another cloudfront and had to turn back. So, I settled on the top of the Levi fell, where there is a famous skiing center.

I had also my 30-year old RET-45 telescope with me for visual observations. It was a bit unstable and the secondary mirror was a bit loose, so using it wasn't exactly easy. I tried to take some photos through it with my cell phone, but wasn't successful. So, my main instrument was my Canon 40D with a 700-300 mm f/5.6 tube. It wasn't really long enough, but what could I do.

I left the Levi after some hours and observed the third and fourth contacts at a parking place nearby. I stopped there because I had noticed couple of German amateur astronomers there, taking photos of the phenomenon.

Trekking in Lapland

As I was in Lapland, I wanted to see it a bit. Just by coincidence, my brother had rented a cabin there for a few days and I was able to stay there for some nights. I visited mainly the national park around the Ylläs fell. There were quite a few interesting places.

Near the Ylläs fell and the Äkäslompolo village lie two very deep saivo lakes, Äkässaivo and Pakassaivo. The saivo were though to be sort of bottomless lakes that lead to the Underworld. In the other world, there lived some other people. There were also couple of sacred seita stones nearby. I took walks around them on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. On Thursday I had to work most of the day - isn't Internet wonderful? I logged four geocaches.

On Saturday evening, I went for a short trip over the Aakenus fell. It was a 17 km nature trail that goes over the fell and through some marshes. On the Eastern side of the fell there were remains of a German Junkers Ju-52 transport plane that had crashed in the fell during the 2nd World War. One of the crew had survived the crash, but was injured and killed himself as rescue proved hopeless. After the rescuers arrived after 2 months, they found a puppy at the site. It had survived by feeding upon the crew...

At the midway of the trail, there was a "Porokämppä", literally "Reindeer Hut", a small wilderness hut, which is free for trekkers. It was quite comfortable and I stayed there overnight. In the Sunday morning, I released Vaadin 6.8.0, as the location was more than convenient for our reindeer-themed product.

I arrived back at my car a bit late in the afternoon and headed back to Turku. The drive 1000 km south took almost 12 hours, so I arrived home at about 6 am. I was quite tired and slept a bit long.

Well, the trip was quite interesting. As I had left everything extra off my car (roof box, rack, bicycle), I managed to squeeze the gas consumption to well under 7 l/100 km. Next time I would probably take my kayak with me, or the roof box, which would raise the consumption a bit. It's usually been around 8 l/100 km with the roof box.

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