Oh, Venus…

June 5:  Today is an exciting day for Astronomy!  For the last time until 2117, we will be able to see Venus transit the Sun.  Even though Venus will be small compared to the Sun’s diameter, clear skies and filtered telescopes should allow us to witness this very rare event.

Since Venus is closer to the Sun than is the Earth, Venus passes in front of the Sun fairly often. However, due to its orbital period (just 225 days) and its orbital angle (tilted by 3 degrees to Earth’s orbital angle), we don’t see this transit every time.  The transits we can see come in pairs, separated by 8 years, in an alternating pattern of every 105.5 and 121.5 years.  They are RARE events!  Observed transits occurred in 1639, 1761/1769, 1874/1882, and now in 2004/2012.  While I don’t usually link to Wikipedia, a good historical perspective of the modern observations is presented there.  For whatever reason, I especially like the story of Guillaume Le Gentil – it’s wonderfully awful!  Sometimes the stars do not align, even for astronomers.

Diagram that shows the angle between the orbital planes of Venus and Earth and the rare time the two orbits overlap, as viewed from the Earth.

I saw the 2004 transit telecast from the Lawrence Hall of Science at Berkeley, and now I’m looking forward to hosting an observing event at Albion College.  The Venus transit will be seen by much of the world, from June 5 to June 6; only parts of South America and Africa won’t be able to see it.  However, dozens of webcasts will show the event, and I’ll bet there will be millions, if not billions, of observers.

Map that shows where the 2012 Venus Transit is visible (NASA graphic).

So, what will be seen?  Due to the size of the Sun and the distance to Venus, Venus will appear to be 1/30th of the Sun’s diameter and will appear as a small black dot that moves relatively quickly across the disk of the Sun . Though sunspots will be visible, Venus’ round shape will be distinctive.

Animation of what the seven-hour Venus transit will look like.


DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN!  Be sure that you are either projecting the event, looking through telescopes equipped with special filters, or wearing eclipse glasses.  The Sun’s intense radiation can temporarily damage your eyes if you are not protecting them!

This is a global observing event and the last good opportunity to see Venus transit the Sun from the surface of Earth (but click here to read about other viewing opportunities).  Don’t miss it!  Find a nearby viewing event or watch it on-line – and keep your fingers crossed for clear skies!

In the News:
Michigan Radio Interview
Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article
Albion College News article

Other links:
Everything you wanted to know about the Venus transit (Discover Magazine article)
History of Venus transit observations (NY Times article)
More history of Venus transit observations (Australian Geographic article)
Transits Explained (Sky & Telescope article)
Story of Captain James Cook’s first voyage, to observe the Venus transit (1769)
NASA Press Release, including a transit animation
NASA Webcast of transit
6 ways to observe the transit

Frankie Avalon sings Venus (1959)
Bananarama sings Venus (1986)

June 6 (Update):  That was certainly an amazing event!  I hope you had a chance to see it, wherever you were.  In Albion, the clouds parted and we had a solid four hours of observing sunspots and then Venus, all the way to the horizon. We had a fantastic turnout, with over 200 people attending.  Enjoy the pictures. 


Scenes from the 2012 Venus Transit event, as viewed from the roof of Palenske Hall.

Pictures from Albion College can be found here.

In the News:
Battle Creek Enquirer newspaper article, with great pictures