Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Transit Of Venus

Last week I grabbed a photo of Venus above the donut shop:

That was a bit of a lucky break because over the last few days Venus has begun swinging closer to Earth and in just a few days, on June 5, Venus will pass between the Earth and the Sun, so Venus has been getting lower and lower in the western sky. Soon Venus will become a morning object, rising higher and higher just before sunrise in the east.

This happens (almost) every year. Venus is an inner planet and travels in orbit around the Sun faster than the Earth. So almost every Earth year (every 584 days) Venus will swing around the Sun, from our perspective, and pass between the Earth and the Sun.

From our perspective here on Earth the Sun is only, roughly, a disk one half of a degree across. So when Venus makes the transition from an evening object to a morning object, usually Venus passes, from our perspective, either above the Sun or below the Sun.

Here are some recent paths, from an interesting Sky and Telescope article, Transits of Venus Explained:

I’ve written about Venus a lot, and often about Venus changing from a morning to an evening object, or an evening to a morning object. Back in 2010 I even grabbed a picture when Venus was low in the evening twilight, getting ready to transition to a morning object.

Exactly As Beautiful To Us

Venus was so hard to see that I had to post a copy of the photo, with Venus circled.

All that being said, however, I am not particularly excited by this year’s big event, of Venus passing in front of the Sun.

It’s just a accident of perspective, and it isn’t a very visual event. When Venus passes in front of the Sun the planet’s silhouette appears very small, smaller than many sunspots. And with space probes and other modern equipment, unlike hundreds of years ago, so far as I know there is little or no real science to be learned from this event in the contemporary world.

There is a website devoted to the event:

So those are a couple of good resources, the Sky and Telescope article and the website.

But, really, there isn’t much to see. I am much more interested in the change-of-state aspect of the situation as the planet moves from the evening sky to the morning sky. And I am concerned about people risking their eyesight to attempt to see the transit.

Really, there isn’t much to see.

It is NOT worth risking your eyesight over, and looking at the Sun can be very dangerous.

At the TransitOfVenus website there will be live coverage of the event. Planetariums and amateur astronomy groups across the country will be hosting viewing parties. These are the safest ways to view the transit.

So I wanted to say something about this event, even though I’m not all that excited by it. Venus changes from an evening object to a morning object almost every year, and it is just an accident of perspective that, this year, Venus will pass in front of the Sun. And it will look like a tiny black dot. That’s all there is to it. Be safe.


I don’t mean to be depressing about this, but it is unsettling to me the way pop culture sometimes pays attention to astronomy, and most often doesn’t.

As I said, Venus passes between the Earth and the Sun almost every year. And, every night, now, Mars and Saturn are very beautiful sights. But pop culture—and, more to the point, pop media—couldn’t care less, and devotes no time at all to astronomy.

But Venus passing in front of the Sun will create an “image”—a high-contrast image—and the media and pop culture love images, especially high-contrast images. And the transit only lasts a few hours, with a well-defined start and a well-defined finish. The media and pop culture love stuff that has an easy-to-understand start and finish.

I don’t mean to be depressing. I mean, I love this stuff: She Asked, “Why Are You Looking...”

And the question: Have you seen the stars tonight? is one of my favorite questions ever.

But what pop culture and pop media do to astronomy, and science in general, depresses me. I’m not even going to talk about Star Wars. I’ve promised myself that here at the blog I will not do a Star Wars post.

But I’m not a fan of pop culture or pop media. When I see pop media coverage talking about Venus passing in front of the Sun, this is what I think about:

I saw the waxing crescent Moon tonight.
It was only a day and five hours old.
Venus was in the west too, bright and bold
just south of the Moon’s thin, dim, orange light.

Bright Venus and a young thin Moon. The sight
made me think of Amy Winehouse. She’s cold
as the night now, but close enough to hold
as a thought. A twilight thought at midnight.

Did Amy ever look up at the stars?
Did she ever know anyone who knew
which star is Venus, or where’s the young Moon?

If nothing else this bright old world of ours
took those people away from her, the few
who know such things, and made her world a rune.

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