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Planet Rock

Rare Transit of Venus brings cosmic energy to diehard sky-watchers

Photo: Frank Hamilton, License: N/A

Frank Hamilton

Star man herman heyn helps locals watch the transit of venus at Lake Montebello


It’s 5:45 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Herman Heyn is depressed.

It’s humid, overcast, and gray, which doesn’t seem to bother the runners and walkers and bikers making their way around Lake Montebello, but the clouds are Heyn’s Kryptonite.

“I was so discouraged and depressed that I didn’t bring out my pride and joy,” Heyn says, setting up an 8-inch Schmidt-Cassagrain telescope at the eastern end of the lake, which will have to do if conditions clear. “We may just have a bit of dumb luck.”

Heyn, 81, is here for a celestial event that hasn’t happened since 2004, and won’t happen again until 2117—though those on the East Coast will have to wait even longer, until 2125. It’s called the Transit of Venus (TOV), when our small planetary neighbor passes between our home planet and the sun, appearing as a slow-moving dot against the star.

Setting up a telescope for the public is nothing new for Heyn, who tonight dons a faded blue beret and a navy sweatshirt with a picture of the Milky Way and the words you are here. He first took to Fells Point’s streets as its resident streetcorner astronomer on Friday, Nov. 13, 1987. The next time he sets up, with a hat for contributions, will be his 2,455th. He knows because he keeps a log—people who stop by his perch in Fells Point (which he calls “FPT”), what the weather was like, how the sky looked. His June 8 entry reads:

#2452) 06/08/12 (FRI) FPT (8:50-11:48PM). PARKIN: Arrived 1-1/2 hrs. early. Got last Water Taxi slot. To avoid paying to park, Sat on bench till 8PM to intercept any metermaid eyeing car. SKY: Haze at sunset but then good. SATURN Lots of doubters. Convinced some by showing Under Armour sign! [Saturn looks so detailed in his telescope that sometimes people believe it’s a fake. He shows them other objects to convince them it’s a real instrument.] TEMPERATURE: Misjudged and wore long pants when should have worn shorts. VISITS: Ted Rouse on inline skates. Used the compass on his iPhone to help align scope on north. Returned much later, still on skates, with daughter. John Strosacker and his long time partner, Sarah, in FPT to hear musician friend. SCENE: Looked slow on arrival but later very busy. $96.50 ($32.39/hr.) INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION (Surprise flyover a little after 9PM.)

Today, at the lake, it’s cloudy, but there’s a patch of blue sky growing ever bigger as the clouds blow away from the sun. Heyn’s never stargazed at Lake Montebello before, but given that the TOV is happening at sunset, and the lake has a nice grassy spot and low horizon to the East, he figured on it being a good locale. He’s hoping a crowd will form, and eventually, one does, everyone eyeing the expanding bit of sky to the north. There’s a quiet excitement in the air, an anticipation of a collective connection with the universe, a chance not only to experience some starry magic, but to do it in the presence of others, to feel the camaraderie that comes from a group of humans feeling simultaneously humbled and enlightened.

The first time I see the sun it is 5:58 p.m. Through Herman’s telescope, now fitted with a white-light filter, it looks like a day moon, more translucent than solid, like you want to look through it rather than at it. It’s beautiful, but beside the point: We’re not looking for the sun, but for the black dot moving across it—Venus.

It will take six and a half hours for Venus to pass from one side of the sun to the other. Here in Baltimore, we are privy to two and a half hours of it. As the moment of first contact—when Venus first intersects with the sun from our line of sight—approaches, Heyn tinkers with his telescope, adjusting the focus and the filter, always checking the eyepiece to see if anything’s happened yet.

And then, finally, “I see it!” Heyn exclaims. “It looks just like a tiny little bite. Like someone took a hole punch. . .”

It is 6:04 p.m., and the crowd is starting to swell from 15 to 17 to 20. Some know Heyn; others are simply passersby wondering about the telescope and the crowd. A woman on a power walk saunters over: “Can you see it yet? I heard about it on the radio and thought it would be interesting.”

As the clock leans toward 6:30, the blue patch of sky grows ever closer to where the sun hides behind the clouds. The crowd lines up one by one to take a peek in the telescope, which can still catch the show through the cloud cover. Finally, the clouds open up, and there is a collective sigh of relief. Now we can really see it—a crisp black dot against the bright white background of the sun.

Another astronomer has arrived, and is setting up nearby. His name is Jerry Feldman—aka Star-Man Jer—and he’s brought two telescopes, one that sees in visible light like Heyn’s, and a hydrogen-alpha solar telescope, designed to view only hydrogen wavelengths—and therefore to look at the sun. Through this telescope, the star appears as a burning red orb in a dark sky, plasma flares—what astronomers call “solar prominences”—protruding from its edges like stray hairs on a humid day. Venus is a solid black dot, slightly fuzzy at the edges as it moves almost imperceptibly across the backdrop of the solar surface.

Feldman, a surveyor by trade and a longtime amateur astronomer—“I survey the Earth by day,” he explains as he sets up his second telescope, “and I survey the stars by night”—darts back and forth between his two telescopes, tirelessly explaining the workings of the sun and the TOV to the adults and children who line up to look through his scopes.

Feldman’s solar telescope is a hit—there are lots of “oohs” and “wows” surrounding it—but he almost didn’t show.

“I felt so depressed,” Feldman says of the cloudy weather in an e-mail following the viewing. “Sitting at home sulking at the weather channel, I saw a streak of light through the window. Yes! The skies were clearing just in time. Although, I missed First Contact, I did see second contact. I’m really glad I was able to share that event with everyone who came out to the lake that day.”

It’s now near 7:30—the transit ends just after 8:30—and Teresa Palomar, a math teacher at Western High School, has just arrived. She’s something of a protégé of Heyn’s, having acquired her first telescope after encountering him at the Rotunda, where he used to set up back in the ’90s. She’s since become a card-carrying Harborplace street performer—the permit is necessary for her to set up—and a master observer in the National Astronomical League, meaning she’s looked at about 2,000 objects on a list from the society.

“The first time I set up this telescope was next to Herman,” Palomar says as she sets up, careful not to allow any sunlight into the scope until the proper filter is in place, and, like everyone else, happy that the weather has cleared. “I gave up. I was eating supper. Then I saw the sun through the window and thought, ‘Damn, I have to get out there.’”

It seems the crowd is grateful that she, Heyn, and Feldman did. Though some viewers came specifically to see the TOV, many are simply curious passersby. All wait in line, take a look, move on to another scope, and get back in line to do it again.

There’s something kind of magical about getting a close look at a faraway object, of being reminded that those pictures in textbooks and on posters are physical objects, not abstract ideas. Baltimore, fortunately, provides plenty of opportunities to join in the experience. There’s Heyn, of course. Now that it’s summer, he’ll be setting up in Fells Point’s Broadway Square three to four nights a week, weather permitting, for a few hours each time. (If you’re wondering if he’ll be out, call him at [410] 889-0460 in the late afternoon; otherwise you can just try your luck.)

Feldman sets up too, often joining Heyn for big astronomical events like the TOV and hanging out at public events for groups such as the Howard Astronomical League and the Harford County Astronomical Society, and at open houses at schools. If you want to check out the sun, he spends most Friday afternoons at Hightopps Backstage Grill on York Road in Timonium. (He doesn’t have a regular schedule, but he can be contacted at starmanjer@yahoo.com.)

And then, there are the observatories (Guide to Seeing Stars in Charm City). There are six in Baltimore and the surrounding areas, and they all provide public open-house nights; some also offer private group tours. The highlight of the summer sky is Saturn, which, on a clear night, can be seen after sunset, with its colors, rings, and moons clearly visible. The Milky Way is also up above, providing an opportunity to view star clusters and the like, and August brings the Perseids meteor shower, set for the 12th and 13th. The observatories are also ideal for checking out the moon, which, due to its proximity, appears through the telescope in great, shining detail. With summer and the stars in mind, here’s a rundown of some of the best views in the city. (All events are weather permitting; if it’s cloudy and/or windy, it’s probably a no go. Also note that unless otherwise stated, the observatories require climbing up stairs and don’t have handicap access.)

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