Astronomy Lesson from the Roof

Because of a hailstorm that hit Altenburg on February 28th, our museum had a damaged roof which needed repair.  Here is a photo of the hail we had at our house not far from the museum.


That roofing job has been underway this week.  While the workers were toiling on top of the portion of our museum which was the original 1845 church building, I asked one of them to take some photos of the bell located up there.  That bell is one of the artifacts we have that is an item that came to America aboard the ships during the 1838-1839 immigration.  I am likely to write a post about the bell someday, but today, I will use one of the photos that was taken yesterday which is a reminder of when that bell was forged.  Here is that photo.


As you can see, this bell is dated 1761.  That makes this bell older than the Liberty Bell.

Carla Jordan asked me a few days ago to write a blog post about the upcoming Reformation/Solar Eclipse Party which our museum is hosting on August 20th.  I decided to see if there was any kind of astronomical event that took place in 1761, and I got a hit.  This will give me the opportunity tell a little history that was taking place in 1761.  As a former science teacher, I also appreciate an opportunity to do a little instructing about astronomy.  In addition, I think I can tie it all into the upcoming total solar eclipse.

It turns out that an astronomical event was taking place in 1761 that was going to cause scientists around the world to make an attempt to cooperate in an effort to get measurements which could contribute much to the realm of astronomy.  A rare but predictable event was going to occur which involved a heavenly body traveling in front of the sun, which is exactly what is happening during a solar eclipse.  The event that was to occur was a transit of Venus.

A transit of Venus happens when this planet and the earth are in precise places in their orbits when from our vantage point on earth, we see what appears to be the planet Venus making a trip across the sun.  Here is a photo taken by NASA the last time there was a transit of Venus in 2012.

NASA’s SDO Satellite Captures 2012 Venus Transit

The black circle in the upper left of this photo is Venus.  I have discovered that transits of Venus happen in pairs.  They occur in pairs that are eight years apart.  The last pair took place in 2004 and 2012.  These pairs occur in intervals that are over 100 years apart.  I trust that neither me nor any of you readers are going to be alive to see the next predicted transits of Venus that will occur in 2117 and 2125.

Astronomers already in 1761 knew that a pair of transits was going to occur in 1761 and 1769.  So in the years leading up to 1761, several expeditions were planned by astronomers all over the planet.  Some astronomers planned trips to several areas around the world to obtain measurements which could only be made during such a transit.  One of their main goals was to calculate a more accurate distance between the earth and the sun.  That is something astronomers call the astronomical unit.  It was going to be important to get measurements from places very far apart from one another on the surface of the earth.  So these expeditions were planned for spots which were located on both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Here is a map showing where the transit of Venus could be viewed back in 1761.  It looks similar to some of the maps I’ve seen describing the upcoming total solar eclipse in August.

1761 Transit of Venus map

Unfortunately, in 1761, another historical event was also taking place which threw some monkey wrenches into the plans of these astronomers.  A war was taking place which had impacted areas all over the world.  Here in America, that was was referred to as the French and Indian War.  It was a war basically between France and Great Britain, and those two countries were trying to gain greater influence around the world.  As a result, several of the ships that attempted to voyage to other areas of the world experienced difficulties which were related to that war.  As a result, the outcomes that were desired were not obtained.  If you want a more detailed description of the events surrounding the Venus transit of 1761, you can find it here.  You might have to wade through plenty of astronomical jargon.

Now, over 250 years later, we are making preparations for another rare astronomical event which will occur on August 21.  Perry County, Missouri is right in the predicted path of a total solar eclipse which will occur on that date, and people from all over our country and some even from other parts of the world, are planning to come here to observe this phenomenon.  This time, a much closer object, the moon, will make a transit across the sun.  Because of its location and size, the moon will appear just about the same size as the sun and the two disks will match up almost perfectly, giving observers a unique view.  In a previous post about the eclipse, Martin Luther’s Eclipse, this photo was posted which was taken during such an eclipse in 1918.

Smithsonian Institution official photographer from 1870 until his death in 1917


That brings me to the topic of our upcoming celebration of this event.  On the day before the eclipse occurs, our museum will be hosting an event which hopes to bring together two special celebrations…..the total solar eclipse and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  We will have food vendors, special booths, musical performances, a movie presentation, and even some of that special brew that so many Lutheran enjoy….beer.  People attending will also have the opportunity to get a special set of viewing glasses just by donating a few canned goods which will be given to a local food pantry.  Here is a flyer that we have produced to promote that event.  We encourage you to attend and to also share this information with others.  We are hoping to have a huge crowd come and enjoy a good time together.

****I plan to put an updated flyer here soon because there are a few changes that need to be made.


I never thought a photo taken on a rooftop in Altenburg would lead me to a transit of Venus over 250 years ago.  I just never know where the facts will lead me, but I enjoy the journey.

2 thoughts on “Astronomy Lesson from the Roof

  1. That’s when you enter the age of Aquarius, you’ve reached the 5th dimension, and you need to get a Funke “Hair” cut in Longtown. But with your hair, Fred, it’ll be pretty hard to for the “hair hacker” to do any hacking.

  2. As a former science teacher, can you answer this question, “What happens when the moon is in the Seventh House And Jupiter aligns with Mars?

Leave a Reply