Venus transit dazzles viewers around the world
Those taking part were seeing what has only been seen eight times since the invention of the telescope -- the image of Venus, a slithering period, blocking just a smidgen of the light from our solar system's star. Astronomers were watching the celestial event from all corners of Earth -- from California to Hawaii to Australia to India.
"To hear it and see it are two different experiences... It's that little dot you won't ever see in our lifetimes again," said Lee Flicker, 56, of Hancock Park.
Lenore Perry, 42, of Santa Monica, was less enthralled with the sight of a dot on the sun. "It doesn't look overwhelmingly wild. But when you think about what it is, it's rare and extraordinary."
One of the best parts of Transit of Venus was coming up at 6:27 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, when the planet was set to be at the midpoint of the sun. The show will continue until sunset in the continental U.S., but will go on in Asia, western Africa and most of Europe until about 9:47 p.m. PDT.
At Mt. Wilson above the San Gabriel Valley, astronomers gathered beneath a blue sky with only occasional wisps of clouds breezing by to celebrate the historic transit.
The last time the Transit of Venus was viewable anywhere on Earth was 2004, but it wasn't viewable on the U.S. West Coast. Before Tuesday, the last time Los Angeles could have seen the Transit of Venus was in 1882.
Don Nicholson, 93, put the rare occurrence in perspective. “It’s like watching grass grow,” he said, describing the six-hour and 40-minute progression that Venus makes across the sun, “but if you were told that grass only grows every 100 years, you’d probably want to watch it.”
Nicholson has been coming to Mt. Wilson to view the sky since he was a child. His father, S.B. Nicholson, an astrophysicist working at the Mt. Wilson observatory, discovered four of Jupiter’s moons.
At 3:06 p.m., the edge of the sun began to be obscured by the planet. “I see it” and “I think I see it” were heard from observers peering through a large variety of telescopes, including one that is 15-feet long. Manufactured in 1868, it was set up horizontally with mirrors channeling the light onto a projection that drew a crowd of onlookers.
Its owner, John Briggs, past president of the Antique Telescope Society, drove from Eagle, Colo., to view the event. He brought about five telescopes with him and described the appeal of watching the transit.
“In the same way that a bird watcher might want to go to some effort to see a rare migration,” he said, “for someone interested in astronomy, the transit of Venus is a wonderful opportunity.”
Briggs was drawn to the event for its historical significance. “Astronomers of yesteryear put heroic effort to measuring this phenomena,” he said, referring to attempts to use the transit as a means to calculate the distance between the Earth and the sun. “We don’t need to go to those lengths today, but it is still humbling to see the phenomena now and think how hard people worked to view it.”
Once the planet was surrounded by the sun, descriptions ranged from a pea resting on a platter to the most accurate calculation of approximately one-tenth of 1% of the surface of the sun. But the diminished character of the event did nothing to diminish the crowd’s enthusiasm. Members from the Los Angeles Astronomical Society and Orange County Astronomers chose Mt. Wilson, located a mile above the city, for its viewing potential.
Copernican scholar Owen Gingerich of Harvard University was among the viewers. Having witnessed the 2004 transit from Palermo, Italy, he had considered watching this event in Hawaii but decided upon Mt. Wilson. He was most interested in watching the Black Drop effect, in which Venus seems to elongate for a few minutes against the edge of the sun. It was this phenomenon that frustrated scientists in the 17th and 18th century attempting to determine the exact months when the transit began.
“As a scientist, I realized that there was no scientific importance in what we’d be seeing up here,” he said. “But as a historian, I could understand better what the Black Drop effect was all about. Those five minutes are why I was here.”
The event was broadcast live for NASA-TV by Astronomers without Borders, a global community of astronomers devoted to international cooperation in observations of the sky. Tuesday’s event on the mountain was hosted by the Mount Wilson Institute, a nonprofit organized for the preservation of the historic observatories.
-- Thomas Curwen at Mt. Wilson with Melissa Leu at Griffith Observatory
Photo: (top) Dan Koehler of Milwaukee watches as Venus passes in front of the sun, otherwise known as a transit, as seen through a 4-inch Alvan Clark telescope on Mt. Wilson on June 5, 2012. This historic telescope was built by Alvan Clark for the last pair of transits of the 19th century.
(bottom) The planet Venus passes in front of the sun. The image was taken through a hydrogen alpha telescope. This telescope is owned by Dr. Barry Megdal of Northridge.
Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times