Thursday, May 31, 2012

The 2012 Transit of Venus

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Mark your calendars. On June 5-6, 2012, Venus will pass across the face of the Sun. This is likely the last time you will see Venus transit in your lifetime. Transits of the planet are very rare, coming in pairs separated by more than 100 years. The first of this pair came in 2004, and after this year's transit there will not be another one until 2117. I've listed below some information you should know about where, when, and how to view the transit.

I'll admit that I went a little crazy with the links, there are a lot of them. The idea was to make a sort of one-stop-shop where you could find all of the transit information you could want or links to where you can find it. Because I've included so many links, I tried to break them up by topic, and hopefully that will help you navigate. First, let's start with some general information type links about the up-coming transit of Venus:

Location, Location, Location

People from all over the world will be looking up on June 5th and 6th, but where you live determines what time you should be looking for the transit. If you are in Europe, the Middle East, eastern Africa, western Australia, India, and western Asia you should be looking for Venus at sunrise on June 6th. If you are in North America, Central America, and the northwestern parts of South America you should look for Venus around sunset on June 5th.  If you live in central and eastern Australia then lucky you! You will be able to see the entire transit. For specific times of the transit at your location, see the Local Transit Times website.

Links about the where's and the whens:

How to Observe

First, and most importantly, NEVER look directly at the Sun without proper safety devices unless you prefer permanent blindness. Regular sunglasses do NOT qualify as a proper safety device. Venus covers too little of the solar disk to block the blinding glare of the Sun. Solar filters are widely available for safe solar viewing.
Here are some options for safe solar viewing:

Protective Eyewear: If you have access to a welding hood that houses a #14 or darker filter then you can use that. Or you purchase inexpensive Eclipse Shades.

Telescopes with Solar Filters: Not only do telescopes magnify Venus, but if they are properly filtered they can also give you a better view then you will have with most other viewing options. If you own an inexpensive, small, and/or older model telescope be careful to make sure you are using the correct type of solar filter. If you don't have these then look below in the links for Projection Methods to find out how to turn your telescope into a projector. Don't own a telescope? No problem, me neither. You can do what I'm doing and find your local astronomy club. They will have telescopes set up (probably nice, big ones) and amateur and expert astronomers on hand to answer questions.

Pinhole Projectors/Camera: These devices are a safe, indirect way to view the Sun. They are popular devices, especially with kids, because they are easy to make and use yourself. Unfortunately they suffer from the problems associated with indirect viewing, namely unmagnified images and lack of detail.

Projection Methods: There are a few types of projection methods, besides pinhole projectors, that you can use to indirectly view the transit. You can project the image of the Sun onto a white surface with a projecting telescope or binoculars (do NOT use the binoculars or telescope to directly look at the Sun!). Another option, especially for children, is to use a Sunspotter telescope viewer.

Use the Internet: You don't have to go outside to see the transit of Venus. You can go online and look for webcasts from around the world.

Experiments, Experiments, Experiments

Space agencies and astronomers around the world will be taking this time to study Venus and test some planetary hypotheses. Planetary transits are powerful methods for discovering exoplanets. It is not only one of the ways that astronomers find exoplanets, but it is also a way to learn more about the characteristics of those far away bodies. By measuring the refraction and scattering of light, lots of information can be gathered about the atmospheres of planets. To refine these techniques and to learn more about our own solar system, astronomers can observe planets close to home. Venus is not only one of the most intriguing bodies in our solar system, it also has a thick atmosphere and passes between Earth and the Sun. This combination of factors allows for the observation and measurement of its atmosphere. Techniques that are directly applicable to exoplanet study.

You can even contribute through citizen science. There is an IOS version and an Android version phone apps that will allow you to send your observations to a global experiment to measure the size of the solar system. Prior to the transit, you can use the app to practice your timing and see predicted times for your location. During the transit, you can use the app to assist you in measuring the time of the interior contacts. After the transit, you can use the app to access your data on a map. I recommend thouroughly reading the instructions so that you both recieve and send good information.

Links to some big experiments during the transit of Venus:

And finally, just a few fun links:

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