Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Look Now for Venus to Cross the Sun, or Wait Another Century

Kenneth Chang / NYTimes.com

Observing the dark circle of Venus cross the face of the Sun on June 3, 1769, from his farm about 20 miles northwest of here, David Rittenhouse left a curious gap in his account of that day.      
An exhibit at the American Philosophical Society museum offers a possible explanation: “Exhausted and excited, he is said to have fainted shortly after the transit began.”
This rare conjunction of orbital mechanics was perhaps the most anticipated scientific event of that century. Expeditions set off for the far corners of the Earth, including one by Capt. James Cook, who sailed to Tahiti.
They went in hopes of answering one of the most vexing scientific questions of the day: How far away is the Sun?
“This was the big unknown for astronomy,” said Owen Gingerich, an emeritus professor of astronomy and history of science at Harvard. Without that number, much else about the solar system was also uncertain: the size of the Sun, the distance between planets.
The next transit of Venus will occur next Tuesday, and will be visible, at least for a while before sunset, across the United States. In New York and along the East Coast, the Sun will be low in the sky, requiring observers to find locations not be obscured by trees or buildings. (A west-facing window up high in a skyscraper could be a good place to watch.) The usual precautions about not looking directly at the Sun apply. Special eclipse viewing glasses can be used, or the image of the Sun can be projected through a pinhole or binoculars onto a sheet of paper.
While no longer of great scientific import, as it was to Rittenhouse and Captain Cook, a Venus transit is still a rare and striking event, occurring in pairs, eight years apart, about once a century. The last transit occurred in 2004, and almost no one alive today will be around for the next one, 105 years from now, on Dec. 11, 2117. (That one will not be visible at all from most of the United States. New Yorkers, however, will have a prime viewing spot for the following transit, on Dec. 8, 2125.) Read More