Transit of Venus
Venus is that bright “star” you’ve been seeing low in the west in evening twilight.
Judging by the number of calls we’ve been getting at the observatory, Venus is hard to miss. The second planet from the sun is the brightest object in the nighttime sky besides the moon.
Right now, Venus is in its most gloriously beautiful crescent phase. Binoculars will show the crescent easily. The sharpest eyed among you may be able to see the crescent with the binoculars you were born with — your own two eyes.
Better check it out fast. By next week’s end (or so, depending on how many trees you have on your western horizon), it will be too close to the sun to see.
In fact, as the sun sets on June 5, Venus will pass in front of the sun in a rare transit, as they are called. The transit begins at about 6:40 p.m. our time and will continue well past sunset at 9 p.m.
Venus will appear as a tiny black dot slowly crawling across the sun. That’s an event so rare that it happens only twice every 120 years.
On one level, a transit of Venus is no big deal. There’s an old song by the Police that goes, “There’s a little black spot on the sun today.” That’s it, basically. On another level, a transit of Venus happens so rarely that people are born and die without seeing one. Captain Cook made his perilous and historic ocean voyage to Tahiti in 1768 to see a Venusian transit. A trip to Tahiti was the equivalent in those days of a trip to the moon. Cook really wanted to see it.
We are not doing a program for the event at Perkins Observatory. Our tree line to the west is far too high. We will be doing what every die-hard stargazer in the nation will be doing: trying our best to find a place with a clean western horizon.
Hear me, fellow and sister stargazers. DO NOT LOOK AT THE SUN, even at sunset, without the proper protection. You will damage your eyes. Safe methods for observing the sun can be found at perkins-observatory.org/eclipsesafety.html.
Note that the pinhole viewing box will not work in this case. The image of the sun is too small to see Venus.
If you’re wondering why I’m referring you to an eclipse-safety page, consider what a Venus transit is. It’s either an event you will never see again in your lifetime or the worst partial eclipse of the sun on record.
We have also tried to include all the unsafe methods on the website, but people’s imaginations often surprise us. Please, please don’t try anything unusual without calling us first. I got a call from someone who wants to use a CD or DVD. Don’t. Someone else called recently and wanted to look at the reflection of the sun it in a jar of motor oil. Don’t.
My personal favorite dumb idea is to look at the sun through a Pop Tart bag. Don’t, unless, of course, you leave the Pop Tart in the bag. You won’t see anything at all, but at least your precious vision will remain safe.
One safe way is to use black plastic filters mounted in cardboard frames. They are variously called “eclipse glasses” or “eclipse shades.” We have a large supply of them at Perkins, and we’ve received requests for them from all over the country. (What? Don’t those folks have science museums nearby?)
Frankly, there are two schools of thought on this matter. Astronerds like me often try to hide such events and hope that people will not be tempted to do something stupid with their precious eyes. Alternatively, we can embrace the event and try to make the viewing safe.
To that end, we sell the glasses by mail. (See the website, but hurry. Time is running out for mail orders) Also, I will camp out at Perkins from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 2, if anybody wants to purchase a pair in person.
Above all, remember that your eyes are the windows that you look through to see the wonder and majesty of the universe you live in. Love them. Keep them safe.
Tom Burns is the director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory, and he would be very happy to answer your questions or sell you a ticket to one of its upcoming Friday-night programs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 740–363‑1257.