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Celestial show a must see

Published 10:36am Tuesday, June 5, 2012

During the course of our lifetime we’ve all witnessed the grand spectacle of the solar system.

From lunar and solar eclipses, to shooting stars, to breathing views of sunrise/sunset, to an ascending full moon on a cloudless evening, the sky above us is full of mystery and wonder.

Later this afternoon (Tuesday) we all have a chance to witness a rare occurrence simply by watching the western sky at sunset. There we’ll see the transit of Venus, which occurs when our neighboring plant passes directly between the sun and Earth.

So, what’s the big deal? There are lunar and solar eclipses involving those two celestial bodies in conjunction with Earth on a regular basis.

What makes the transit of Venus so unique, so rare, is that this particular alignment comes in pairs that are eight years apart but separated by over a century.  The last transit of Venus was witnessed in 2004.  After the June 2012 event, the next one is 2117. Unless there’s some big medical discovery that prolongs life, nobody alive as of today (at least those old enough to realize what is occurring) will be around 105 years from now to witness Venus’ next scheduled orbit across the face of the sun.

Adding to the mystery of this rare occurrence is its strange pattern of frequency. According to www.transitofvenus.org, it took 121 years and six months for Venus to pull this celestial stunt prior to the one in 2004…the last one prior to that year was in 1882. The next scheduled lapse will be 105 years and six months.

Since the invention of the telescope the transit of Venus has only been witnessed six times (1639, 1761, 1769, 1874, 1882 and 2004). Today’s occasion marks number seven.

A transit time calculator built into the aforementioned website predicted that we here in the Roanoke-Chowan area can expect to be able to briefly experience this phenomenon beginning at around 6:05 p.m. and lasting until sunset on Tuesday. Venus will appear as a black dot on the sun’s face at just a bit right of top center. The planet will travel down and keep to the right of center of the sun’s face until we lose the light of day.

We will not be able to see the entire seven-hour trek. While we do have a chance to witness the early stages of the event, those in Europe will see the end on Wednesday morning.

Those living in Alaska and parts of northern Canada as well as those in New Zealand, much of Australia, Asia and Russia will be lucky enough to witness the entire transit. Much of South America and western Africa will not see the event at all.

If you do choose to observe this rare occurrence, do not look directly at the sun unless using eclipse viewing glasses that carry a CE mark and are not damaged or worn. Even with those protective glasses, only look for a few minutes at the time. For a better view, use a small telescope or a pair of binoculars to project an image of the sun on to a screen. It is not safe to look at the sun through regular sunglasses.

NASA will broadcast a live webcast of the transit from the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii.

Whichever way you choose to observe this rare event, it promises to be a memory to last a lifetime. Hopefully the weather will cooperate for us on Tuesday and give us an unobstructed view.

 

Cal Bryant is Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at cal.bryant@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7207.

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