Posted by: Jerry Garrett | May 8, 2012

Venus Transit: Last Big Celestial Event of Our Lifetime?

Clouds got in the way of 2004’s Transit of Venus (NASA)

Scientists say the Transit of Venus across the Sun on June 5, 2012 is a big deal.

It’s such a big deal, in fact, they say adults living on Earth today aren’t likely to see a celestial event as rare the rest of their lives.

Wow, I’m thinking: It had better not be cloudy June 5! There will be a lot of ticked off astronomers, if the weather is crappy.

In fact, that it is how it played out in many areas in 2004 – the most recent time Venus transited the Sun. There was a lot of grumbling about the less-than-favorable weather that time, because there hadn’t been a Venus Transit before then since 1882!

Venus Transits (learn more about them here) happen on a weird schedule: They occur in pairs, eight years apart – then not again for alternating periods of 105 and 121 years!

So, what this means is: If the 2012 transit disappoints (like the 2004 one did, for many), it’s gonna be a long wait until the next one – which isn’t scheduled until December 2117! (Or, in case of inclement weather, December 2125!)

What exactly is a Venus transit? The Earth, Venus and Sun line up, and Venus’s orbit takes it between the Earth and Sun simultaneously. From our vantage point here on Earth, Venus appears no bigger than a black freckle on the Sun’s face. (I’ve actually seen sunspots that appeared larger!) On the rare occasions when a Venus Transit happens, it takes a little over six hours to play out.

To scientists and astronomers and even amateur sky-watchers, the Venus Transit is special not because it is a grand spectacle. It’s more just something – celestially speaking – that is incredibly rare.

The heavenly “biggies”, as popular Astronomy columnist Bob Berman notes, are things like Halley’s Comet, meteor storms and planetary transits. Halley’s Comet isn’t due back again until 2061. The last huge meteor storm was in 1966 (60 meteors a second for those lucky enough to see it); the much-anticipated Leonid storm of 1999 turned out to be a complete dud. The next Leonid super-storm isn’t likely until 2099!

So, the Venus Transit is it for awhile. So don’t miss it!

But, in truth, it’s rather tough to see a Venus Transit – and that’s even when the weather cooperates.

To view it, you must look directly at the Sun – oops! scratch that! Do not look directly at the Sun. You need No. 14 welders’ goggles to look through, or specially designed filters or eclipse glasses. A lot of people won’t bother with the time, expense and danger of trying to view it themselves. They’ll probably just wait to see it in the news media.

There are a couple of other gotchas for would-be Venus transit watchers:

The best place to see this one, in its entirety, is the Pacific Ocean. Dang!

NASA’s map of the 2012 Transit of Venus

“North America will be able to see the start of the transit,” notes a NASA source, “while South Asia, the Middle East, and most of Europe will catch the end of it.” South America and western Africa are outta luck (until, as previously mentioned, 2117).

Another thing: For most folks, the transit will only partially visible, as it will already be underway at sunrise or sunset on June 5 in the Western Hemisphere, or June 6 for inhabitants of the Eastern Hemisphere (see the map above).

Okay, let’s say you miss it. When is the next big-time, totally rare celestial event heads Earth’s way? Well, there’s a close call with an asteroid due in 2029. Then, there’s Halley’s return – which should be much more spectacular than it was during its disappointing last visit in 1986. Halley’s tail, on that visit, Mr. Berman notes, “will stretch halfway across the sky.” That visit, and another due 75 years later, should be “the best Halley conditions since Julius Caesar created his famous salad,” the witty Mr. Berman promises.

Or the world could indeed end on December 23, 2012, as some predict, when the Mayan calendar runs out. In which case, never mind.

Jerry Garrett

May 8, 2012

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