Star-gazers, amateur astronomers and even those with only a mild interest in the solar system won’t want to miss the transit of Venus Tuesday June 5th.
What is a transit of Venus?
A transit is when Venus passes directly between the Earth and the Sun. To us on Earth looking skyward the planet is visible as a small dot slowly gliding across the face of the Sun. It may sound a little like the dawning of the age of Aquarius, but this rare event will be the last of its kind to take place in our lifetime.
Amy Sayle, PhD, Current Science Manager at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center at the University of North Carolina is planning what she calls a “Family Science Event” Tuesday June 5th from 5:30 pm to 8:30 pm at the planetarium. A full schedule for viewing this historic phenomenon is set and anywhere from 200 to 800 people are expected to view the transit at Morehead.
According to Sayle, Venus passes between the Sun and Earth regularly, but because Venus’s orbit is inclined a few degrees relative to Earth’s orbit Venus is usually just above or below the Sun when this happens. Crossing directly in front of the Sun only happens in pairs 8 years apart separated by more than a century.
Historically, the transit of Venus has been used to measure the size of the solar system. Today, one way astronomers find exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than the Sun) is by looking for planets that transit their parent stars.
In 2004 the Venus transit took place on a cloudy morning. The folks at Morehead Planetarium are hoping for clear skies as the transit of Venus occurs once again.
The transit begins after 6 pm and takes close to 6 hours. If conditions are favorable it will be visible for about 2 ½ hours. There will be safe solar viewing both inside and outside of the planetarium. Solar telescopes and sun spotters will be available and a solar filter for the main telescope in the observatory will be used to enable the transit to be viewed on the live web-cam.
Additionally, visitors can enjoy free science talks on the science stage presented by NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassadors and every half hour live shows pertaining to the transit will be held in the planetarium. Tours of the observatory will be conducted as well and there will be plenty of hands-on activities for young astronomers.
Sayle also notes they have hundreds of eclipse glasses available for visitors to safely view the black dot of Venus crossing the sun. The transit of Venus can be seen even if it’s cloudy or raining and the Morehead event will take place rain or shine. Regardless of where you view this rare occurrence Sayle emphasizes proper solar viewing safety is a must.
This is realistically the last opportunity to see the transit of Venus in our lifetime. The next one isn’t due to occur until 2117 and won’t be visible in North Carolina. The transit of Venus will be visible again in the Tarheel State in 2125.
Morehead Planetarium and Science center is at the University of North Carolina, 250 East Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. For more information about the transit of Venus or Morehead Planetarium visit their website. Another good source of information about the transit is transitofvenus.org.