Cool space shot: Venus set to cross Sun

NASA, ESA: Venus won’t pass in front of Sun again till 2117

nasa venus-sun
You likely have been told your entire life not to stare directly at the Sun but for an event happening next month you may want to figure out how to get a peek.

NASA said on  June 5th, 2012, Venus will pass in front of the sun, "producing a silhouette that no one alive today will likely see again."

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Such crossings are rare. NASA says they come in pairs, the one set for June 5 being the pair of a crossing that happened in 2004. Another transit won't occur until the 2117.  

Specifically NASA says that the nearly 7-hour journey begins at 3:09 pm Pacific Daylight Time on June 5th. The timing should be good for observers in the mid-Pacific where the sun is high overhead during the crossing. Observers on seven continents, even a sliver of Antarctica, will be able to see it. In the USA, the transit will be at its best around sunset. NASA notes that the passing planet is really no larger than a good sized solar flare as it passes over the face of the Sun.

From NASA: "This year's transit is the second of an 8-year pair. Anticipation was high in June 2004 as Venus approached the sun. No one alive at the time had seen a Transit of Venus with their own eyes, and the hand-drawn sketches and grainy photos of previous centuries scarcely prepared them for what was about to happen. Modern solar telescopes captured unprecedented view of Venus's atmosphere backlit by solar fire. They saw Venus transiting the sun's ghostly corona, and gliding past magnetic filaments big enough to swallow the planet whole. 2012 should be even better as cameras and solar telescopes have improved. Moreover, NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory is going to be watching too. SDO will produce Hubble-quality images of this rare event."

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The Hubble telescope will also be watching. NASA said astronomers are planning to point the Hubble telescope at the Earth's Moon, using it as a mirror to capture reflected sunlight and isolate the small fraction of the light that passes through Venus's atmosphere. Imprinted on that small amount of light are the fingerprints of the planet's atmospheric makeup.

According to the European Space Agency, Venus-Sun transits are of great historical significance because they gave astronomers a way to measure the size of the Solar System. For example, the transits of the 18th century enabled astronomers to calculate the distance to the Sun by timing how long it took for Venus to cross the solar disc from different locations on Earth and then using simple trigonometry.  Also, during the transit of 1761 astronomers noticed a halo of light around the planet's dark edge, revealing Venus to have an atmosphere, the ESA stated.

So how do you watch this historic event safely? The has a bunch of good suggestions here.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8 and on Facebook

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