Venus Transit — There’s an App for That!

Transit of Venus by NASA's TRACE spacecraft Image credit: NASA/LMSAL

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There have been only six Venus transits since the invention of the telescope in the early 17th century. It was not until 1761 that the transit of Venus on June 6th was observed as part of the first ever international scientific observation project, instigated by Edmond Halley. Astronomers across the globe viewed the transit and the differences in their observations were used to triangulate the distance to Venus and, using Kepler’s laws, the distance to the Sun, the other planets and the size of the Solar System. Though the method used has not changed in the 251 years since, the equipment most certainly has.

For this transit, we have technology on our side.

In previous Venus Transits, expeditions were sent out far and wide and the 1761 transit was eventually recorded by 120 individual astronomers from 62 locations across Europe, America, Asia and Africa. They used only the simple telescopes of the day, fitted with dense filters, a pendulum clock to time the transit and quadrants to determine their exact latitude and local time. It is hardly surprising that their observations varied widely. Their calculations put the Sun’s distance between 130 and 158 million kilometres.

Transits happen in pairs. After 121 years a transit occurs followed 8 years later by another, then 105 years pass before the next pair and then the pattern repeats. Prior to the transit of 2004 the most recent transit was in 1882. There were none during the whole of the 20th century! We now approach the last chance to view a transit in our lifetime, the next will not occur until 2117.

Luckily, we’ve got some newly developed technology to help make this the most-observed transit ever!

Astronomers Without Borders are part of the Transit of Venus Project to get as many people around the world to observe the transit and to participate in a collective experiment to measure the Sun’s distance. To this end they have produced the Venus Transit phone app, available to download free for both iTunes and Android. Once downloaded you can start to practice timing the interior contacts of ingress and egress using a simulation of the transit. This is not as easy as it seems, as the black drop effect makes precise timing tricky so practice is definitely recommended. The app will tell you how far out you are so that you can perfect your timing and it will also predict times of contact based on your location together with times of sunrise and sunset.

On the day of the transit, the app will record the exact GPS time and your location, which is sent to the global database. Afterwards you can access your data on the website’s map to edit your entry, and upload descriptions, text, images, or movies and view other entries as well. This transit will be visible over most of the Earth except for parts of West Africa and most of South America, so download, get practicing and become part of a once in a lifetime, global citizen science experiment!

Find out more at Transit of Venus

2012 Venus Transit – The Countdown Is On!

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Head outside on any clear night this week and you won’t be able to miss brilliant Venus decorating the western horizon. Right now it’s surrounded by a host of bright winter stars like Capella, Betelgeuse, Aldebaran and the Pleiades. But, don’t stop there. Use any type of optical aid and you’ll see the planet is in the crescent phase right now and bigger than Jupiter in apparent size!

There’s a lot of things to know about viewing Venus. Oddly enough, the smaller the phase, the more brightly it shines. If you cannot see its slender form for the glare, simply try wearing sunglasses while using your binoculars… or stacking dark filters, such as green and blue, for the telescope eyepiece. While you’d think that something which sparkles and shines like Venus would be very exciting to see magnified, it’s actually pretty bland. However, don’t let rather ordinary appearances fool you. Behind that “girl next door” exterior is a really radical chick. Beneath the bland clouds runaway greenhouse gases heat things up to 860 degrees Fahrenheit (460 degrees Celsius) and volcanoes rule.

Keep on watching Venus. Right now she’s headed towards Earth and the pinnacle of observing excitement – the Transit. It will continue to grow larger in apparent size and the crescent phase will narrow even more. On June 5 (June 6 in Australia and Asia), it will pass between the Earth and Sun… an event which only happens about twice in a century and won’t happen again until the year 2117!

Venus Transit Sequence 2004 - Credt: John Chumack

The clock is ticking and now is the time to begin your preparations to view the transit of Venus. Do not wait until just a few days before the event to choose a location for your observations. If you do, you might find yourself faced with clouds… an obstruction you hadn’t planned on… getting permission to be in a certain area… or many other things. Knowing exactly where the Sun will be during the transit means a relaxed experience!

As of now, you’re going to find it will be very difficult to locate solar filters for particular telescopes – and waiting any longer may mean not having one at all. Because the transit of Venus is such a rare event, many retailers are carrying special eclipse/transit viewing glasses. They will appear much like the cardboard 3D glasses you get at the movie theatre, but instead of red and blue lenses, they will have either black mylar or Baader filter film. These glasses are safe for solar viewing, but there are a few things you must understand about them. Before you view, please inspect the edges carefully to make sure they are sealed and no sunlight can enter. Even more importantly, do not use them in conjunction with binoculars or a telescope. Eclipse glasses were meant strictly for use with your eyes. Concentrating sunlight with an optical aid and hoping the glasses will be enough to block the Sun’s harmful rays is taking a chance at blinding yourself. Always use approved solar filter material when viewing with telescopes or binoculars and always supervise when children are present.

Venus Transit 2004 - Credit: John Chumack

The next tip for viewing the Venus transit has to do with photography. If you plan on filming or photographing the event through a telescope, now is the time to practice. Do not wait until just a few days before the event to be sure your video equipment is working properly – or that your camera is prepared. Start now by taking practice pictures of the Sun and make sure you have spare batteries or a power supply on hand for the day of the event. Nothing is more disappointing than being ready to photograph an astronomical event and having your equipment fail at the last second. It’s always wise to have a back-up option… such as a cell phone camera, spare pocket camera, or even a camcorder handy just in case. All of these will work afocally. If you practice in advance, you’ll find you can take quite satisfactory photos by just holding the camera to a properly filtered telescope eyepiece.

The last tip for viewing the Venus transit is time. Make sure well in advance of exactly what time the transit starts in your area! The local transit times page by Steven van Roode and Francois Mignard is an excellent resource. But don’t forget… the times are given on an astronomical standard – Universal Time. If you are unsure of how to convert, try the Time Zone Converter to assist you.

The clock is ticking… Be ready!