Technology & Science

Transit of Venus draws millions to the sky

From the U.S. to South Korea, people around the world turned their attention to the daytime sky on Tuesday and early Wednesday in Asia to make sure they caught the rare sight of the transit of Venus. The next one won't be for another 105 years.

Next sighting of Venus crossing sun won't be for 105 years

None of us will likely see Venus pass, like a moving beauty spot, across the face of the sun again.      

From the U.S. to South Korea, people around the world turned their attention to the daytime sky on Tuesday and early Wednesday in Asia to make sure they caught the rare sight of the transit of Venus. The next one won't be for another 105 years.     

"If you can see the mole on Cindy Crawford's face, you can see Venus," Van Webster, a member of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society, told anyone who stopped by his telescope for a peek on Mount Hollywood.     

For astronomers, the transit wasn't just a rare planetary spectacle. It was also one of those events they hoped would spark curiosity about the universe and our place in it.     

Sul Ah Chim, a researcher at the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute in South Korea, said he hoped people see life from a larger perspective, and "not get caught up in their small, everyday problems."     

"When you think about it from the context of the universe, 105 years is a very short period of time and the Earth is only a small, pale blue spot," he said.  

Window of opportunity  

The transit was happening during a six-hour, 40-minute span that began just after 6 p.m. ET in Canada and the United States. What observers could see and for how long depended on their region's exposure to the sun during that exact window of time, and the weather.     

Those in most areas of North and Central America saw the start of the transit until sunset, while those in western Asia, the eastern half of Africa and most of Europe could catch the transit's end once the sun came up.     

Hawaii, Alaska, eastern Australia and eastern Asia including Japan, North and South Korea and eastern China get the whole show since the entire transit happens during daylight in those regions.     

John Bonnell snapped this photo of Venus and a string of geese through the eyepiece of his telescope in his front yard near St. Lazare, Man. (John Bonnell)

While astronomers used the latest technology to document the transit, American astronaut Don Pettit aboard the International Space Station was planning to take photos of the event and post them online.     

Online streams with footage from telescopes around the world proved popular for NASA and other observatories. A NASA stream midway through the transit had nearly two million total views and was getting roughly 90,000 viewers at any given moment.     

Meanwhile, terrestrial stargazers were warned to only look at the celestial event with a properly filtered telescope or cardboard eclipse glasses. If the sun is viewed directly, permanent eye damage could result.     

L.A.'s Griffith Observatory rolls out red carpet

In Los Angeles, throngs jammed Mount Hollywood where the Griffith Observatory rolled out the red carpet for Venus. The last time the city witnessed a Venus transit was 130 years ago in 1882. A 2004 transit was not visible from the western U.S.     

Telescopes with special filters were set up next to the lawn and people took turns peering at the sun before and during the transit. Astronomers and volunteers lectured about the rarity of a Venus pass to anyone who would listen.     

Planet Venus moves across the sun as seen in Kunming in southwest China's Yunnan province on June 6, 2012. People around the world trained their eyes and telescopes on the skies to watch the transit of Venus on Tuesday and early Wednesday in Asia. The rare event won't be happening again for a century. (Associated Press)

Minutes before Venus first touched the outer edge of the sun, Sousa's Transit Of Venus March blared through. The crowd turned their attention skyward.     

In Mexico, at least 100 people lined up two hours early to view the event through telescopes or one of the 150 special viewing glasses on hand, officials said. Observation points were also set up at a dozen locations.     

Venus, which is extremely hot, is one of Earth's two neighbours and is so close in size to our planet that scientists at times call them near-twins. During the transit, it appears as a small dot.  

Rarer than a solar eclipse   

This was the seventh transit visible since German astronomer Johannes Kepler first predicted the phenomenon in the 17th century. Because of the shape and speed of Venus's orbit around the sun and its relationship to Earth's annual trip, transits occur in pairs separated by more than a century.     

It's nowhere near as dramatic and awe-inspiring as a total solar eclipse, which sweeps a shadow across the Earth, but there will be six more of those this decade.     

In Hawaii, hundreds of tourists and locals passed through an area of Waikiki Beach where the University of Hawaii set up eight telescopes and two large screens showing webcasts of the transit as seen from telescopes at volcanoes on other Hawaiian islands.     

But minutes after Venus crossed into the sun's path, clouds rolled overhead and blocked the direct view.     

"It's always the challenge of being in Hawaii — are you going to be able to see through the clouds," said Greg Mansker, 49, of Pearl City, as he stood in line at a telescope.     

The intermittent clouds didn't stop people from looking up through filters, but it did drive some to crowd the screens instead.    

Jenny Kim, 39, of Honolulu, said she told her 11-year-old son the planet's crossing would be the only time he'd get to see the transit in person.     

"I don't know what the future will be, so I think this will be good for him," Kim said as she snapped photos of the webcast with her smartphone.

Risk of eye damage    

Most people don't tend to gaze at the sun for long periods of time because it's painful and people instinctively look away. But there's the temptation to stare at it during sky shows like solar eclipses or transits of Venus.     

The eye has a lens and if you stare at the sun, it concentrates sunlight on the retina and can burn a hole through it. It's similar to when you hold a magnifying glass under the blazing sun and light a piece of paper on fire.     

It can take several hours for people to notice problems with their eyes but, by that time, the damage is done and, in some cases, irreversible.     

During the 1970 solar eclipse visible from the eastern U.S., 145 burns of the retina were reported, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.