Sky show will be last chance this century to catch Venus in transit

By Chelsea Whyte on June 1, 2012 4:26 PM EDT

VENUS
The last time Venus crossed in front of the Sun was in 2004. (Photo: NASA)

Get ready for a stellar spectacle. The stars are literally aligning to provide a rare chance to see Venus in transit, as it crosses the face of the sun. On Tuesday June 5 at 6:09 EST, the second planet will pass directly between Earth and the Sun, showing as a dark spot on our fiery star.

The Transit of Venus, as it is called, is the first in 8 years and the last for another 105 years. Venus transits come in pairs separated by eight years, with more than a century usually elapsing between one pair and the next, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Venus travels on an orbit almost level with Earth's, so it passes between our planet and the Sun often enough, but from an earthbound perspective, it seems to fall above or below the Sun. On Tuesday, viewers in the Pacific, including Hawaii, Alaska, Japan and eastern Asia, will have six hours and 40 minutes to watch as it takes its rare path across the face of the Sun.

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For the rest of the United States, the Sun will set while the transit is still in progress, reports ABC News.

"Anything silhouetted on the sun looks interesting. Seeing Venus is extremely rare," said astronomer Anthony Cook of the Griffith Observatory to the Associated Press. 

Astronomers at NASA will use the time during transit to learn about atmospheric conditions on Venus. Just like your eyes, the Hubble telescope cannot look directly at the sun without being damaged, so NASA astronomers will point the its cameras at the moon, which will act like a mirror and reflect light that passes through the Venusian atmosphere.

This will give scientists a kind of negative picture of the makeup of Venus' atmosphere. As light passes through the planet's atmosphere, some of it is absorbed. NASA astronomers can determine what it's made up of by reading which parts of the light spectrum are missing on the moon reflection.

They already know what Venus' atmosphere is made of, so this exercise will serve as a test of the method for discovering other Earth-like planets that orbit stars, reports Discovery News.

This will also be the first transit of Venus to be observed from the International Space Station. "I've been planning this for a while," says astronaut Don Pettit, who serves as Flight Engineer onboard the International Space Station. "I knew the Transit of Venus would occur during my rotation, so I brought a solar filter with me when my expedition left for the ISS in December 2011." 

Pettit will photograph the phenomenon out of the station's cupola, a seven-windowed observation module with an incredible view, using a Nikon D2Xs camera and an 800mm lens with a full-aperture white light solar filter.

"For this transit, Don will be removing the non-optical quality, internal protective window panes known as 'scratch panes,' which really make crisp, sharp, and clear images impossible," says astronaut Mario Runco, Jr. of the Johnson Space Center. "Removing those panes is a huge plus when it comes to details that will be seen in the imagery of the Sun." 

If you want to catch the dark horse trotting across the Sun, NASA has some safe solar viewing guidelines to remember. You should always view the sun with protection. Grab a pair of inexpensive Eclipse Shades or make a pinhole projector with a piece of paper which will focus an image of the sun through a pinhole, which you can view projected onto the ground or another sheet of paper.

Or get yourself to one of the many museums that have viewing parties to catch a glimpse of Venus. It'll be your last chance before the year 2117. 

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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