Bates College invites public to safe viewing of 'Transit of Venus'

Faculty in the Bates College departments of geology and of physics and astronomy invite Lewiston-Auburn residents to a viewing of the highly anticipated “Transit of Venus,” a rare solar system event, at dawn Tuesday, June 8.

Weather permitting, the viewing will take place from 5:15 a.m. until the transit is over, around 7:25 a.m., at the west edge of the Bates parking lot on the south side of Russell Street between Central Avenue and Lafayette Street. For more 786-6490

“We have a small telescope well-suited for observing the sun,” said Professor of Physics Eric Wollman, chair of the physics and astronomy department, “and are glad to offer the use of it and invite people to view this rare event at Bates. We have been anticipating it for a long time.”

Members of the Bates faculty will be on hand to operate the telescope and discuss the event. Viewers will see a dark spot crossing the disk of the sun as the planet Venus passes directly between Earth and sun. A relatively unusual event in the solar system, the previous Transit of Venus occurred in 1882 and will next take place in 2012 — followed by a hiatus of more than 100 years before another occurrence.

Viewers in much of Europe, eastern Africa and central Asia will be able to see the entire transit, but in New England the event will be half over when the sun rises, at about 5 a.m. EDT. Observers will have about two hours to see the transit before Venus finishes crossing the disk of the sun and disappears into the solar glare.

The sun should never be viewed directly, whether with an instrument or the naked eye, as serious and permanent eye damage can result. Safe viewing of the transit requires a telescope or binoculars equipped with very dense sun-viewing filters, as for viewing a solar eclipse. Or an image from the eyepiece of a telescope or binoculars can be projected onto a white card serving as a small viewing screen.

Historical records indicate that the first observation of a Transit of Venus was in 1639, less than 30 years after the first astronomical applications of the newly invented telescope. The transits of 1761 and 1769 inspired the first global scientific research enterprise.

“It was quite remarkable,” said Gene Clough, lecturer in geology and physics at Bates. “People sailed all around the world to observe the transit.” It was hoped that careful observation from many locations would permit an improved determination of the size of the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

“There were many difficulties and the data were harder to interpret than had been anticipated,” Clough said, “but historically it was a very important episode.”

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