Astronomical fans take heed, Venus is coming! Riding on the heels of the recent Ring of Fire solar eclipse, Venus is sidestepping the moon to become the latest heavenly body to be visible from Earth. Called the Transit of Venus (or as I like to call it, Aphrodite’s Eclipse), this is a twice in a life time opportunity so be sure to mark all your social calendars!
Okay, perhaps it’s not the most titillating affair (yes I just used that word) and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit ‘meh’ about the whole thing. But, it’s a rare astronomical event and no doubt, one of the biggest scientific observations to be made this year.
The Transit of Venus is marked by the crossing of Venus in between Earth and the sun. Like a solar eclipse, Venus shows up as a black spot slowly moving across the face of the sun (if you plan on observing the effect, you’ll be looking out for something that looks like Cindy Crawford’s mole).
Due to the differences in the orbit path and orbit time of both Earth and Venus around the sun, the Transit of Venus occurs in 8 year long pairs, once every 105/120 years apart (this youtube video gives a decent summary). So it’s like, a heaps important event and stuff.
Apathetic, but Appreciative
Okay, despite my apathetic attitude towards this event, it does come with some pretty cool stories. The Transit of Venus has been known since ancient times and in the last few hundred years, astronomers from around the world have been pretty desperate to record the event.
Aside from the astronomical ‘coolness’ factor, scientists and explorers have pursued the event to learn more about the solar system. By viewing the Transit of Venus from different areas around the globe, scientists have been able to determine the distance from the Earth to the sun and from there, size of the solar system (hint: it’s really big).
Now if you can imagine, organising a globetrotting event amongst your science chums was considerably more difficult a few hundred years ago. And a lot of it was sailing from place to place, hoping that the weather Gods gave you a good view of Venus.
Many astronomers in the past have successfully viewed the event and have gained measurements, but others have dismally failed. My favourite story is about one very unfortunate French astronomer named Guillaume Le Gentil.
The Unfortunate Life of Guillaume Le Gentil
Guillaume set out on an expedition to view the 1761 transit from the French colony of Pondicherry, India, as commissioned by an international collaborative project and the French Academy of Sciences. He left his wife and family, and boarded a vessel to make the long journey to India.
But during his voyage, bad weather careened him off course and he was stranded at sea for 5 long weeks. But time was still on his side and eventually he made it to the Indian coast. On arrival though, he learned that the British had invaded Pondicherry, making it impossible for him to land.
He had no choice but to sail away and on the day of the transit, despite beautiful and clear blue skies, he was stuck on a rickety boat unable to make any useful measurements.
However, Guillaume was resilient and rather than return to his lovely wife, he continued his voyage around the Indian Ocean, patiently awaiting the next transit some 8 years later. He initially decided that the Philippines would make a suitable location but political antagonism towards the French forced Guillaume to rethink his strategy.
Learning that Pondicherry had been restored to the French following a peace treaty, he set sail back to India. He arrived in a timely fashion and enjoyed months lounging around Pondicherry, making scientific observations here and there. The weather proved particularly beautiful, with clear blue skies for much of the time leading up to the transit event.
However, on the day of the Transit of Venus, Guillaume woke to nothing but overcast skies. And as the morning hours rolled, a storm brewed and Guillaume could see nothing in the sky but grey clouds and hammering rains.
Utterly depressed and dismayed, Guillaume finally decided to return back to France, after travelling thousands of leagues across the ocean with great disappointment and failure. On his return voyage though, he contracted dysentery and had to stop off in Mauritius.
When he finally recovered and set sail, a hurricane damaged his ship and he was forced to return to Mauritius for repairs. He eventually did make it back to France, only to find that he had been pronounced legally dead, his estate had been ransacked, his wife remarried and his place within the French Academy of Sciences revoked. All I can say is, poor Guillaume.
Planets Beyond the Galaxy
Of course scientists today are a lot more fortunate that Guillaume Le Gentil and hopefully none of them face the same disappoints as he did. And while finding the more accurate distances between the Earth and the sun is still a priority, other achievements are earmarked.
Many scientists are observing the transit of Venus in order to find possible cues to look out for when searching for planets beyond our solar system. They’ll be measuring the brightness and size of Venus to get an idea of what they should be looking for beyond our galaxy.
The atmosphere and climate of Venus will also be studied, giving us a fresh idea of how screwed we would be if we decided to land on the sulphurous, hot surfaces of Venus.
The Transit of Venus will occur on June 5-6, 2012. Even though it lasts for about 6 hours, not everyone around the world can view the event, so you can check here whether you can or not.
Also, as a disclaimer, I feel I should advise you not to look at the event directly as you can burn your eyeballs. Some nifty solar shades are recommended, which is like wearing 70 pairs of sunglasses at once, (but please don’t try doing that, either).
I hope you all enjoy Aphrodite’s Eclipse and be sure to tell me all your favourite Venus transit stories!