Silhouetted Venus reminder of solar system's size

By Oskar Garcia

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, June 6 2012 7:35 a.m. MDT

The planet Venus passes in front of the sun as seen from Mount Vernon, Wash Tuesday afternoon June 5, 2012 around 5:30 p.m.

Scott Terrell, Skagit Valley Herald, Associated Press

HONOLULU — Filtering the sun's light to a minuscule fraction of its true power allowed sky-gazers around the world to watch a silhouetted Venus travel across Earth's closest star, an extremely rare spectacle that served as a reminder of how tiny our planet really is.

After all, the next transit is 105 years away — likely beyond all of our lifetimes but just another dinky speck in the timeline of the universe.

"I'm sad to see Venus go," electrical engineer Andrew Cooper of the W.M. Keck Observatory told viewers watching a webcast of the transit's final moments as seen from the nearly 14,000-foot summit of Mauna Kea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island.

From Maui to Mumbai, Mexico to Norway, much of the world watched the 6-hour, 40-minute celestial showcase through special telescopes, live streams on the Internet or with the naked eye through cheap cardboard glasses.

"If you can see the mole on Cindy Crawford's face, you can see Venus," Van Webster, a member of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society, told those who stopped by his telescope for a peek on Mount Hollywood.

For astronomers, the transit wasn't just a rare planetary spectacle. It was also one of those events they hoped would spark curiosity about the universe and our place in it.

Sul Ah Chim, a researcher at the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute in South Korea, said he hoped people see life from a larger perspective and "not get caught up in their small, everyday problems."

"When you think about it from the context of the universe, 105 years is a very short period of time and the Earth is only a small, pale blue spot," he said.

The transit began just after 6 p.m. EDT in the United States. What observers could see and for how long depended on their region's exposure to the sun during that exact window of time, and the weather.

Those in most areas of North and Central America saw the start of the transit until sunset, while those in western Asia, the eastern half of Africa and most of Europe could catch the transit's end once the sun came up.

Hawaii, Alaska, eastern Australia and eastern Asia, including Japan, North and South Korea and eastern China, get the whole show since the entire transit happens during daylight in those regions.

While astronomers used the latest technology to document the transit, American astronaut Don Pettit aboard the International Space Station was planning to take photos of the event and post them online.

Online streams with footage from telescopes around the world proved popular for NASA and other observatories. A NASA stream midway through the transit had nearly 2 million total views and was getting roughly 90,000 viewers at any given moment.

Meanwhile, terrestrial stargazers were warned to only look at the celestial event with a properly filtered telescope or cardboard eclipse glasses. If the sun is viewed directly, permanent eye damage could result.

Roy Gal, an assistant astronomer at the University of Hawaii, told those viewing the transit at Waikiki Beach on Oahu that the telescopes were filtered to block all but 1/100th of 1 percent of the sun's light, plus all its infrared rays to keep the instruments from overheating.

"What we need to do is block out most of the light from the sun so that we don't go blind and we don't melt things," Gal said in an interview.

In Los Angeles, throngs jammed Mount Hollywood where the Griffith Observatory rolled out the red carpet for Venus. The last time the city witnessed a Venus transit was 130 years ago, in 1882. A 2004 transit was not visible from the western U.S.

Telescopes with special filters were set up next to the lawn and people took turns peering at the sun before and during the transit. Astronomers and volunteers lectured about the rarity of a Venus pass to anyone who would listen.

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