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May. 30, 2012

Last Look This Lifetime: Catching the Transit of Venus

by Charles Bergquist

Click to enlarge images
On June 5 and 6th, 2012,  people around the world will have a chance to see a rare astronomical event, the transit of Venus. During the transit -- which will last about 6 hours and 40 minutes from start to finish -- the planet Venus will pass between Earth and the disk of the Sun (a so-called inferior conjuction) just as Venus crosses over the Earth's orbital plane. To an Earth observer, Venus will appear as a tiny black dot moving across the face of the sun.
 
Though there was a transit of Venus in 2004, such events are often once-in-a-lifetime spectacles. Prior to 2004, the last Venus transit took place in 1882. The next one won't come around until December of 2117.

People in the Pacific (including Hawaii) will have the best view of the event and be able to see the entire transit, while people to the east (including the Continental US) will have their view interrupted by sunset. Locations to the west, including most of Europe, western Australia, and the Middle East, will join the transit already in progress at sunrise. For the best view of the transit at sunset or sunrise, consider getting to a high location with an unobstructed view of the horizon.
 
{"input":{"width":490,"photo":"transitmap","row":"4158","table":"DOCUMENT"}}
  UTC Eastern Pacific Hawaii
Transit Begins 22:09 June 5 18:09 15:09 12:09
Transit Maximum 01:29 June 6 21:29 18:29 15:29
Transit Ends 04:49 June 6 00:49 21:49 18:49

REMEMBER: Don't look right at the sun.

One of your best bets for viewing astronomical events such as this one is to connect with a local group of amateur astronomers, as they'll likely have the tools and know-how to provide a great view. If you're viewing on your own, however, you have several options:

To view it safely, you can:
  • Get a pair of "solar observing glasses." These are specially designed for safe viewing -- do NOT use regular sunglasses, polarized filters, or other devices. (It may be too late to easily find these near you, but you can stock up for future eclipse viewing.)
  • Look through a telescope with a proper solar filter attached. Don't use solar filters that attach to the eyepiece of the telescope. Proper solar filters should filter the sun's light before it enters the instrument to be magnified.
  • View through #14 Welder's glass. This is the dark glass that goes in the face shield of welding masks. The "#14" refers to the darkness of the shade. Make sure you have #14 glass -- common welder's masks often use a lighter shade. #14 glass can be obtained at local welding supply stores for a few dollars.
  • Use a telescope or pair of binoculars to project an image of the sun onto another surface. The Exploratorium has a good set of instructions for making a projector.  Remember -- do not look through the scope or binoculars, and give your instrument time to cool down during viewing. The concentrated light from the sun can heat up and damage the optical components.
  • Make a 'pinhole camera' to project an image of the sun onto another surface as described here. While this is a good option for an eclipse, the image made this way may be too dim and small to be able to view the tiny dot of Venus during the upcoming transit.
  • Watch online. The Slooh Space Camera will stream a feed of telescope views, http://events.slooh.com/
More info:
About Charles Bergquist

Charles reminds Ira when it's time to stop talking, helps wrangle this Web site, and produces segments for the radio program. His favorite stories involve chemistry, inventions, nanotechnology, and shiny things with blinking lights.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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