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Venus in transit across the sun (simulation)
Venus in transit across the sun (simulation)

Venus transit

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The Venus transit of the Sun headlines astronomy news this week, including in the NCPR studios, where Aileen O'Donoghue gave Martha Foley the story. Venus will pass between the Sun and Earth when the two planets' orbits are just right for people on Earth to see its progress. Astronomers and fans all over the world will be watching; there won't be another "transit" for 105 years. In the North Country, viewing will start at about 6 p.m., and end at sunset, weather permitting.

Aileen teaches physics, including astronomy, at St. Lawrence University. She and her colleagues will be set up at the SLU athletic fields on outer Park St. with telescopes and special glasses for viewing. Parking will be across the street, with some parking for the disabled closer by.

In the Adirondacks, The Wild Center in Tupper Lakes has a full slate of events for the transit including a webcast from NASA, beginning at 5 p.m.

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Martha Foley
News and Public Affairs Director

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According to Aileen O’Donoghue, a physics and astronomy professor at St. Lawrence University, viewers will be able to see Venus approach and pass in front of the disc of the sun tonight at 6 p.m. The entire process takes about seven hours, but, given Earth’s movement, the transit will only be visible until sunset.

Due to the tilt of the planets’ orbits, there are two places, or nodes, where Venus’ orbit actually crosses Earth. Tonight’s transit is not only close to a node, but it is also lined up with the sun. This is rare, given that Venus typically passes far north or south of the sun. These transits always come in pairs, and the last one was in 2004. This means that the next two will not happen until 2117 and 2125.

Though viewers won’t be able to directly watch the transit due to the brightness of the sun, there are other ways to see it. Telescopes and eclipse glasses will be provided at the viewing at St. Lawrence’s athletic fields on outer Park St. This equipment will allow people to watch with their own eyes. There will also be a live webcast.

According to O’Donoghue, the best way to watch the transit at home is to make a pinhole camera. “Punch a hole with a pin in one sheet of paper, stand with your back to the sun, hold it up, and put another sheet of paper out as a screen and you can get an image of the sun and the little dot will appear,” she explained.

In case of rain, everyone will be invited to watch the live webcast on the second floor of Bewkes Hall at St. Lawrence University. Viewing will also happen at the Wild Center in the Adirondacks. Since the forecast calls for inclement weather in that area, the live webcast will be on for the duration of the event and there are activities planned for kids and adults. However, if it is clear outside, they will be at Little Wolf Beach.

“This is historically very cool because Johannes Kepler, when he figured out the orbits, figured out that this would happen and his laws of planetary motion allowed us to figure out the rations of the planets’ orbits,” said O’Donoghue. This knowledge allowed astronomers to triangulate and observe the planets from all over the world. Scientists were able to first observe this transit in 1639, and it has taken generations of astronomers to predict and understand it.

Information gleaned from the Venus transit can be used to study extra-solar planets. These are detected by examining stars that have dimmed slightly because a planet has crossed in front of them. Astronomers in countries around the world will view the Venus transit and be able to offer different perspectives about the atmosphere.

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