Seeing the Transit

by Tanya
Publish date
29 June 2012
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It may just have been a little dot – but what a dot it was!

Breakfast with Venus was held at the Melbourne Planetarium as a special event for the Transit of Venus, selling out in just three weeks.

We were treated to a glorious morning, which was a great surprise as the days leading up to the event were dreadful, with constant cloud and rain.

Visitors watched Venus move onto the Sun via a live feed from Mauna Loa in Hawaii, made possible through a partnership with the Exploratorium, San Francisco. It was incredible to have a room full of silent people in our planetarium foyer, just waiting for the moment to see Venus' dark shadow appear. And it was just so brilliant when it did!

We then moved out to the Scienceworks arena where five telescopes were set up, including one projecting a large screen image. Everyone was able to see the moment again, but this time directly for themselves. We all had our eclipse glasses too and we were surprised at how easy it was to see Venus through them.

After getting our fill of Venus and some light breakfast, we headed into the Planetarium for a presentation describing the geometry of the transits – particularly why they come in pairs before having to wait over a century for the next one – followed by the highs and lows of previous transit expeditions.

Path of Venus across the Sun Transits of Venus come in pairs, one either side of the "sweet spot" where Venus' orbit crosses the ecliptic plane. By 2020, when Venus and the Sun are lined up again, Venus will fall short and miss the Sun.
Source: Museum Victoria

The human stories drew much collective laughter and sighs from our audience. Over the centuries astronomers have dedicated years of their lives to see this event. None more so than Jean-Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche who saw the Transit of 1769 from a Spanish Mission in Baja California (what is now part of Mexico) but then passed away six weeks later as an epidemic spread through the area.

In the lead up to the 2012 transit, Guillaume Le Gentil became a bit of a 'poster boy' for the event. He was the one who saw a brilliant transit in 1761, but because he was stuck out at sea, he wasn't able to make any meaningful measurements. He managed to set up an observatory in India for the 1769 transit ...

"only to be the spectator of a fatal cloud which came to place itself before the Sun at the precise moment of my observation, to carry off from me the fruits of my pains and fatigues."

Fortunately for our transit, we were able to continue viewing the event throughout the day. A few hundred people saw Venus, with many commenting that they had taken time off work or kept children home from school to do so. I joined in too, and two of my sons were able to get out of school for a short while to share the moment with their mum.

Tanya with her sons A happy astronomer shares the Transit of Venus with her sons.
Source: Tanya Hill

I was amazed by the dedication of our visitors who were happy to wait for just another clear patch of sky so they could catch one more glimpse of Venus. And my final thought – what will the world be like when Venus next meets up with the Sun, in that far off December of 2117?

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About this blog

Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.