A little after 6 p.m. on Tuesday, residents of Tiverton, Little Compton and the rest of the east coast will have an opportunity to witness one of the rarest predictable celestial events: a transit of Venus.
Often referred to as the "Evening Star" or "Morning Star," Venus is the brightest natural object in our sky after the Sun and the Moon. As the second planet from the Sun, it's closer to the Sun than the Earth is.
A "transit" of Venus occurs when Venus passes between us and the Sun in such a way that we can see Venus's silhouette backlit by the Sun's brilliant light. It last happened in 2004, but it won't happen again until 2117. Unless you plan to shatter some human longevity records, this is probably your last chance.
Were Venus either large enough or close enough to block out the Sun's light as it passed, we would call this event an eclipse, as we do when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun. Venus, however, is a little bit smaller than the Earth and about 27 million miles away. When its tiny silhouette is viewed against the Sun, which lies another 66 million miles beyond, it can offer viewers a dramatic sense of the solar's system's vast scale.
Assuming sufficiently clear skies, the transit will be visible for us starting at about 6:04 p.m. on Tuesday and will remain so until the sun sets. Those in the central and western U.S. will be able to enjoy it longer, while viewers in Alaska, Japan, and large section of Australia, China, and Russia will be able to see it in its entirety. By the time the Sun rises on the east coast on Wednesday, Venus will have completed the transit.
Bristol Community College professor calls it an exciting, historic event
Dr. Jim Pelletier, of Tiverton and professor of astronomy, philosophy and chemistry at Bristol Community College in Fall River, emphasized the importance of Venus' transit, because the opportunity probably won't happen again in our lifetimes. He said he viewed the 2004 transit from the observatory deck of the school.
"What they're going to see is just a little round ball, and looks a like a cue ball from billiards table," he said. "It will move in a small arc from one edge over the other."
Pelletier highly recommended downloading the smartphone app or going online (like to space.com) to view the event, since there will unlikely be a break in Tuesday's weather to view it outside.
"On that site, they will see the transit of Venus from beignning to end," he said. "In addition, your cell phone GPS will be used by Astronomers Without Borders to recalculate the diameter of the solar system. This has never happened before cuz we never had phones with GPS in them. It’s rather exciting."
How to watch
Never look directly at the sun with your naked eyes. You can damage your eyes. Likewise, viewing the sun with either binoculars or a telescope can direct the sun's magnified rays directly into your eyeball and cause serious injury―think about what happens to ants under a magnifying glass.
Sunglasses do not provide sufficient protection. If you know someone who works in plumbing or construction, ask them if they have any #14 welder's glass. You can look directly at the sun through this material without risking injury.
If you have a tripod or a partner and a pair of steady hands, you can use binoculars to project an image of the Sun onto a white piece of paper. Remember, don't look through your binoculars at the sun!
If none of these options is feasible, the Skycrapers, a local amateur astronomers club in North Scituate based at the Seagrave Observatory will team up with Ladd Observatory to view the transit at Brown University's OMAC Athletic Center in Providence from 5 to 8 p.m. on the roof.
Other local options include:
- Frosty Drew Observatory, Ninigret: frostydrew.org/events/transit.of.venus/
- Krupowicz Planetarium, Middletown: www.mpsri.net/page.cfm?p=1012
- Museum of Natural History, Roger Williams Park: www.providenceri.com/museum/special-events
- NASA’s live webcast: sunearthday.nasa.gov/2012/transit/webcast.php
- People can also view the transit safely on the Ladd Observatory website.
Though it's not quite the same as viewing the phenomenon in person, there are several places to watch the transit of Venus online:
- The Slooh Space Camera will offer an 8-hour webcast of the transit that includes real-time video feeds from 10 telescopes around the world.
- Astronomers Without Borders will carry a video stream of the transit from the Mount Wilson Observatory in California.
- NASA will offer a live video feed from Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii with expert commentary.
- The San Francisco Exploratorium will host an online video stream from the Mauna Loa telescope in Hawaii.
Lastly, there's Don Pettit, an astronaut currently aboard the International Space Station. Pettit's not doing a video feed, but he will become the first person to ever photograph a transit of Venus from outer space.