Astronomers point telescopes skywards for rare
transit of Venus
Rachel Gould, Associated Press
GREENWICH, England -- The spectacle
of tiny Venus passing across the face of the sun awed observers around the
world today, as people from Australia to the United States squinted skyward or
hunched over telescopes for the rare event.
Many came with a sense of cosmic
wonder, some were only puzzled.
``How come the sun had a black dot
in it?'' Dorcas Tam, 7, asked in Hong Kong.
Across the Midde East -
well-positioned to see the entire six-hour transit - viewers took to the
mountains in Lebanon, the desert in Jordan and the pyramids in Egypt to get a
People in Africa and Europe could
also see almost the entire show, while the northeast corner of the United
States and Canada would see only the tail end of the event.
``The hook that got people was that
there was no one in our lifetime who had ever seen it. My son Daniel got
gripped by that,'' said Debbie Musselwhite, who came with 10-year-old son to
join several hundred people at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.
``It's a brilliant opportunity to
know the mechanics of our solar system,'' said another visitor, Shereeza
Some people were waiting in line at
6 a.m. for a chance to use one of the filter-equipped telescopes provided by
the observatory, said Emily Winterburn, curator of astronomy.
The Royal Observatory, beside the
Thames in southeast London, has a historic connection to the transit, which
occurs twice - eight years apart - about every century. In 1716, Edmond Halley
of comet fame observed the transit at Greenwich to calculate the distance
between the Earth and the sun.
Planetariums the world over - from
India's eastern city of Bhubaneswar to Boston - set up telescopes with
eye-protecting solar filters.
In the United Arab Emirates, the
Astronomical Society set up an air-conditioned tent, providing telescopes and
lectures - along with chocolates and water for those coming in from the
111-degree heat. ``With this big event, we had to let the public share our
passion,'' said the society's chairman, Khalfan Sultan al-Noaimi.
``One day, I want to be a pilot and
reach up there,'' said Nemr Ramzi, a 10-year-old Palestinian, who was in the
In Bahrain, state-run television
aired documentaries on Venus. A group of science students at an observation
point discussed whether they should collectively perform a special prayer often
said during solar eclipses.
``Any phenomenon is related to
religion, and we are Muslims. The simplest thing to do is to pray to God. ...
We are thanking him on every occasion,'' said Mohammed Youssef, an assistant
professor of physics.
In Greece, two American experts
stationed themselves at opposite ends of the country - the southern island of
Crete and the northern city of Thessaloniki - in hopes of unlocking the mystery
behind the ``black drop effect,'' which makes Venus appear teardrop shaped
instead of a circle when it aligns with the edges of the sun.
``It's like a fine French wine for
the people who know about it and enjoy it,'' gushed Jay Pasachoff, an
astronomer at Williams College in Massachusetts, as he watched the event from
the observatory of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
Pasachoff's team collected data on
Venus' atmosphere. It also took advantage of the transit to refine techniques
for studying so-called exoplanets orbiting distant stars. The used 12
telescopes and NASA's Transition Region and Coronal Explorer spacecraft, known
by its initials as TRACE, to observe the transit.
About 500 people were lined up at 5
a.m. in Boston to take a turn at a telescope atop the Harvard Smithsonian
Center for Astrophysics.
A blue sky over Sydney gave about 40
people looking through telescopes at the city's observatory a clear view.
The sight had special significance
for Australians - this country's east coast was ``discovered'' by British
explorer James Cook on his way home from viewing the 1769 transit in Tahiti.
Rain and cloud obscured the show in
Japan and Thailand. It also was cloudy in Hong Kong, but that didn't stop more
than 100 people queuing up at the Hong Kong Space Museum, where several
telescopes were waiting.
Cristy and Robert Sears, amateur
astronomers from Bellingham, Wash., came to Paris for the event.
``The beginning was exciting. There
was a lot of oohing and ahhing,'' Cristy Sears said, then added with a laugh:
``But we forgot to bring the champagne.''
In a park in Oslo, Norwegian
astronomer Knut Joergen Roed Oedegaard proposed to his girlfriend Anne Mette
Sannes on a stage in front of about 2,000 people gathered to watch the transit.
She said yes to thundering applause.
A key viewing location in Britain
was Carr House in Much Hoole in northwest England. A telescope was set up in
the bedroom where astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks observed the transit for the
first time on Nov. 24, 1639.
``It was a bit surreal to be stood
here and think this is the spot where Jeremiah Horrocks was when he saw the
transit all those years ago,'' said Riddhi Gupta, 16, one of three New Zealand
students who won a competition to come to the event.