Venus transit a show like no other
Philippine Daily Inquirer
None of us will likely see Venus pass, like a moving beauty spot, across the face of the sun again.
From the United States to the Philippines, people around the world turned their attention to the daytime sky on Tuesday and early Wednesday in Asia to make sure they caught the rare sight of the transit of Venus.
The next one won’t occur for another 105 years.
In the Philippines, members of the Philippine Astronomical Society (PAS) converged on the roof deck of the Manila Observatory to see the transit through high-tech, filtered telescopes.
The celestial show had Edmund Rosales, former PAS president, contemplating the shortness of human life and the vastness of the universe.
“By 2117, none of us who [are seeing] this will still be alive,” Rosales said. “We can tell this to our children. It is not likely that they will see this in their lifetime,” he said.
Edward Delelis, a 25-year old amateur astronomer, said, “My grandchildren might see this.”
Life at larger perspective
“If you can see the mole on Cindy Crawford’s face, you can see Venus,” Van Webster, a member of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society, told anyone who stopped by his telescope for a peek on Mount Hollywood.
For astronomers, the transit wasn’t just a rare planetary spectacle. It was also one of those events they hoped would spark curiosity about the universe and our place in it.
Sul Ah Chim, a researcher at the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute in South Korea, said he hoped that people see life from a larger perspective, and “not get caught up in their small, everyday problems.”
“When you think about it from the context of the universe, 105 years is a very short period of time and the Earth is only a small, pale blue spot,” he said.
The transit happened during a 6-hour, 40-minute span that began just after 6 p.m. EDT (2200 GMT and 6 a.m. in Manila) in the United States. What observers saw and for how long depended on their region’s exposure to the sun during that exact window of time, and the weather.
Those in most areas of North and Central America saw the start of the transit until sunset, while those in western Asia, the eastern half of Africa and most of Europe caught the transit’s end when the sun came up.
Hawaii, Alaska, eastern Australia and eastern Asia including Japan, North and South Korea and eastern China got the whole show since the entire transit happened during daylight in those regions.
The transit of Venus occurs when the second planet from the sun and the sixth largest passes between the Earth and the sun.
According to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, Venus entered the sun’s face at 6:09 a.m. It traversed the side of the sun for six hours, and exited the orb at 12:49 p.m.
The phenomenon can be likened when the moon blocks the sun. But since Venus is farther from the Earth, it will appear as a small dot moving across the surface of the sun.
Event in pairs
The transit of Venus happens in pairs, with the two sightings in a pair separated by 8 years. Each pair is separated by a century.
The first transit this century happened in 2004. The event Wednesday was Venus’ second and last transit. Prior to the 2004-2012 pair, the last pair happened in 1874 and 1882. The next occurrence of the transit of Venus will be in 2117.
PAS members set up telescopes and image projectors and gave filters to spectators on the roof deck of the Manila Observatory.
Despite the forecast of cloudy skies over Metro Manila, sky watchers were still able to see the show during breaks in the clouds.
“This is a [rare] event. We don’t get to see this every day,” said Ronald Tangco, a PAS officer.
How science works
Tangco said he made sure to see this transit because he missed the 2004 event. According to Tangco and other PAS members, observed astronomical phenomena like this give the public a chance to see how science and scientists work.
Planetary transits across stars like the sun are used by scientists to identify possible planets.
Watching a transit is also useful to determine the mass of a planet or a star, Tangco said. When an object moves across a star and causes the star’s brightness to dim a bit, that usually means the object is a planet, he said.
Scientists using sophisticated equipment can also detect a “wobble” in the star’s light, which is caused by a planet’s gravitational pull. “We are seeing here how astronomers discover new planets,” Rosales said.
In Camarines Norte province, 240 high school students trooped to Bagasbas Beach in Daet for a 25-minute lecture and a chance to see the transit.
The Department of Science and Technology chose Bagasbas as a venue for watching the show because its location was best for following the entire transit.
Grant Paris, a fourth year student at Vicente Elbasit Memorial High School, said he was excited because he knew he would never see a Venus transit again.
“The experience made me realize that humanity is just a speck in the vast universe,” he said.
Magdalena Villarin, a science teacher at Elbasit Memorial High School, said the students were so lucky because they saw the phenomenon, and she hoped the experience would encourage science-oriented students to pursue science courses.
Six batches of high school students, with 40 students in each batch, received an orientation lecture in an airconditioned bus named Science Explorer.
While astronomers used the latest technology to document the transit, American astronaut Don Pettit aboard the International Space Station was planning to take photos of the event and post them online.
Online streams with footage from telescopes around the world proved popular for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and other observatories. A Nasa stream midway through the transit had nearly 2 million total views and was getting roughly 90,000 viewers at any given moment.
Warning to gazers
Terrestrial stargazers were warned to only look at the celestial event with a properly filtered telescope or cardboard eclipse glasses. If the sun is viewed directly, permanent eye damage could result.
Most people don’t tend to gaze at the sun for long periods of time because it’s painful and people instinctively look away. But there’s the temptation to stare at it during sky shows like solar eclipses or transits of Venus.
The eye has a lens and if you stare at the sun, it concentrates sunlight on the retina and can burn a hole through it. It’s similar to when you hold a magnifying glass under the blazing sun and light a piece of paper on fire.
In Los Angeles, throngs jammed Mount Hollywood where the Griffith Observatory rolled out the red carpet for Venus. The last time the city witnessed a Venus transit was 130 years ago in 1882. The 2004 transit was not visible from the western United States.
Telescopes with special filters were set up next to the lawn and people took turns peering at the sun before and during the transit. Astronomers and volunteers lectured about the rarity of a Venus pass to anyone who would listen.
Minutes before Venus first touched the outer edge of the sun, Sousa’s “Transit Of Venus March” blared through. The crowd turned their attention skyward.
Jamie Jetton took the day off from work to bring her two nephews, 6 and 11, visiting from Arizona to the observatory. Sporting eclipse glasses, it took a little while before they spotted Venus.
Venus, which is extremely hot, is one of Earth’s two neighbors and is so close in size to our planet that scientists at times call them near-twins. During the transit, it will appear as a small dot.
This will be the seventh transit visible since German astronomer Johannes Kepler first predicted the phenomenon in the 17th century. Because of the shape and speed of Venus’ orbit around the sun and its relationship to Earth’s annual trip, transits occur in pairs separated by more than a century.
It’s nowhere near as dramatic and awe-inspiring as a total solar eclipse, which sweeps a shadow across the Earth, but there will be six more of those this decade.
In Hawaii, hundreds of tourists and locals passed through an area of Waikiki Beach where the University of Hawaii set up eight telescopes and two large screens showing webcasts of the transit as seen from telescopes at volcanoes on other Hawaiian islands.
But minutes after Venus crossed into the sun’s path, clouds rolled overhead and blocked the direct view.
“It’s always the challenge of being in Hawaii—are you going to be able to see through the clouds,” Greg Mansker, 49, of Pearl City, said as he stood in line at a telescope.
The intermittent clouds didn’t stop people from looking up through filters, but it did drive some to crowd the screens instead.
Jenny Kim, 39, of Honolulu, said she told her 11-year-old son the planet’s crossing would be the only time he’d get to see the transit in person.
“I don’t know what the future will be, so I think this will be good for him,” Kim said as she snapped photos of the webcast with her smartphone.
Astronomers also hosted viewings at Pearl Harbor and Ko Olina. In Maui, 20 couples renewed their vows during a ceremony tied to the transit at the Hyatt Regency Maui. Reports from AP, Kristine L. Alave in Manila and Juan Escandor Jr., Inquirer Southern Luzon