Catch transit of Venus tonight, because it won't be seen again until 2117
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Transits occur in pairs eight years apart, once every 100 years or so. It previously took place in June 2004 and will not recur until December 2117. The 2012 transit will be visible to those in the greater South Bend area from 6:04 p.m. until sunset.
While Venus itself will make four contacts with the sun, visible from Earth, over a period of six hours, Michiana residents will only be able to view the first half of the spectacle, because two of the four contacts will take place after the sun sets on Indiana.
"We'll be able, from our vantage point, to see the first and second contact of Venus as it crosses the plane of the sun," said Arielle Phillips, a Notre Dame research assistant professor in astrophysics and cosmology theory.
"The first contact is that very first time when Venus' edge touches kind of the edge, the edge gets superimposed with the sun. The second contact is when Venus is fully overlapping the sun, and then we'll see it kind of travel across the sun. However, the sun is going to set before we can see the exit of Venus across the sun."
Phillips will host a transit observation event at Jordan Hall of Science on Notre Dame campus this evening. Telescopes will be available next to the sun dial, beginning at 5 p.m. Additionally, the first 500 people to arrive will receive solar shades. The auditorium in Jordan Hall Room 101 will display a live webcast of the transit from locations around the world. Notre Dame Food Services will provide food and refreshments for sale.
"What's interesting for non-scientists," said Phillips, "is that there's actually an effort under way so that people will record across the world their sighting of the first contact, second contact, third contact, fourth contact, depending on where you are on Earth, because you'll get to see those. There's kind of going to be a crowd sourcing observation of the transit of Venus, an actual measurement across the world."
Chuck Bueter, a member of the Michiana Astronomical Society, said this effort is made possible by a free phone app for iOS and Android that people can use as they watch the transit through their telescopes.
"When they see contact, all they have to do is hit their smart phone," said Bueter. "It records the time. It records their GPS location and it sends that information to a global database, so we can at least see if with our modern tools and toys, we can do any better than the astronomers of the 18th and 19th centuries.
"What can you expect to see?" he continued. "Venus is going to appear as a small dot, one-32nd the diameter of the sun, so this is on the cusp of the human ability to discern an object. So it's very tiny. Young eyes will easily be able to see it."
Bueter spoke at the Penn-Harris-Madison Digital Voice Theater on May 24 for a three-part lecture series about the transit. He delved into how people could experience the transit in the Michiana community.
He also introduced the family of Irvin Stanley, a Hoosier who was an assistant photographer for the United States Naval Observatory during the 1874 and 1882 transits. Stanley's great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren will travel from California, Illinois, Michigan and other areas of Indiana to attend viewings of the transit of Venus in Michiana.
Those looking directly at the sun during the transit must take the necessary precautions to protect their eyes. Phillips has several safe solar observing tips for the public.
"You really should either look through a telescope that has a filter on it or look through solar shades," she said. "You absolutely need to look at solar safety information online if you're considering any other way of looking at it. Sunglasses will not protect your eyes and you don't want to use binoculars. You don't want to use binoculars with solar shades. You want to be very careful, so it's normal eye safety, the same as any other day that you'd be looking at the sun, which normally we don't do."
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Scientists can use the transit of Venus to answer questions about the solar system, galaxy and universe at large, but the questions change with each new transit, as research progresses.
"The transit of Venus is how we first came to understand our place in the solar system," said Bueter. "The Astronomical Unit is the distance from the Earth to the sun and it's the yardstick by which we can measure all other distances, the distance to all other planets. And for centuries, that was the leading question of the day. How big's the solar system? How large is this cosmos in which we fit? The transit of Venus could answer that question.
"Now, one of the leading questions of the day is, is there life out there? Are there habitable planets out there? And that's what the transit method is answering. So we have, with the Kepler spacecraft, scientists have found thousands of candidate planets around distant stars.
"If we as a nation want to prosper through math and science, we need to celebrate math and science in action," said Bueter, "not just celebrate sports. Celebrate math and science. And this is a community celebration. And that's how everybody has been embracing it. And I'm excited for my community that they find value in this."
The Michiana community has certainly been embracing the upcoming transit. Various restaurants, cafes and breweries in the area have dedicated menu items to the solar spectacle. From the Granger-based Victorian Pantry's black drop effect coffee to Thyme of Grace's Transit of Venus salad, several Michiana eateries have created dishes to commemorate the event.
The appropriately titled Pizza Transit in Niles coined two Transit of Venus pizzas. The pizzeria also named one pizza after the black drop effect, a phenomenon that occurs immediately after the second contact and directly before the third contact of Venus during the transit. The effect causes an optical illusion in which a small, black teardrop-shaped figure appears to connect Venus' disk to the edge of the sun.
The Livery in Benton Harbor has also created a Venusian ale, as well as an art exhibit celebrating the transit. The microbrewery will host an event this evening after the sunset causes the transit to become invisible from the Midwest. The brewery's reception is the last stop in a bus tour that begins with festivities at the Penn-Harris-Madison Digital Voice Theater at 1 p.m.
The tour moves on to Harris Branch Library to view its art exhibit and historic artifacts, continues to Notre Dame campus to see the first and second contacts of the transit and concludes at Warren Dunes to watch the transit until the sun sets at 9:16 p.m. over Lake Michigan. The post-transit reception will be at the Livery, where Transit of Venus enthusiasts are welcome to place messages to future generations of transit watchers in a time keg.
"In past centuries, people have left messages to future centuries," said Bueter. "Well, instead of having a time capsule, we're going to have a time keg. It's an old late '60s-style stainless steel keg. So we're going to be getting messages from people and putting it in this time keg, sealing it up for 105 1/2 years."
In addition to the bus tour, the Penn-Harris-Madison Digital Voice Theater will host a viewing event, according to the director, Art Klinger. The theater will open its doors to the public at 4 p.m. and host a show entailing the history of the transit of Venus, beginning with its discovery through a telescope in 1639 by English observer Jeremiah Horrocks. The show will also detail historical methods of timing the transit and modern usage of the transit for scientific research.
After the show, the public will be able to watch the transit through telescopes outside the theater or on an live Internet feed projecting onto the theater's dome an image from the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
"I don't know what inspires people to look at it," Bueter said, "but when you see it, it just appears as a dot and you realize you're looking at this three-dimensional thing of you on Earth, this planet the size of Earth in the distance looking as a dot against this vast sun. And you get it. It's a sublime moment."
Bueter and the rest of the Michiana Astronomical Society do not want anyone to be denied the opportunity to view the transit. Society members brought solar shades to the South Bend Juvenile Correctional Facility.
"If you're unfortunate enough to be locked up, you should be able to look at it," Bueter said, "but anyone that's got the freedom to get out and look at it should get out and look at it."