Local astronomy enthusiasts gathered for rare transit of Venus

BY AMY SKARNULIS | JUNE 06, 2012 6:30 AM

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5:22. A moment we will never see again. Our children will never see again. Our children's children may never see it again.

The planet Venus passed between the Earth and the Sun at 5:22 p.m. Tuesday, a transit that will not occur again until 2117. Viewers could see Venus silhouetted against the disk of the Sun.

On the roof of Van Allen Hall, five telescopes were set up, filled with lines of people awaiting to see the transit.

The Sun was so bright at 4:30 p.m. people without Sunglasses could not look around without squinting their eyes. People applied Sunscreen, and much of the crowd members had high hopes they were going to be able to see a live transit.

"Looks like we're in for a disappointment," someone in the crowd said referring to the clouds quickly approaching.

Physics/astronomy Professor Steven Spangler set up the event to give the public a unique experience.

"It is a unique event, and I thought it was a good idea to have a public event," he said.

Fritz Benedict — a senior research scientist at the McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas-Austin — said the meaning of the event has drastically changed since it took place hundreds of years prior.

"Back in the day, [the event] was pretty much essential to figure out how far away the Sun is from us," he said. "They would look at how long it will take for Venus to transit the Sun, then do very complicated arithmetic to find out the Sun is 93 million miles away from us."

Spangler said Venus is almost the exact size of the Earth, so viewers would be able to see the approximate size of the Earth in relation to the Sun.

Iowa City resident Brian Lenth, a spectator at the event, made a contraption to be able to see the transit without having to look directly at the Sun. The self-proclaimed "amateur astronomer" faced a pair of binoculars toward the Sun while holding a piece of white paper on the other side. This way, one could see the Sun on the paper.

"I've been doing this for a while," he said. "It's just basic mathematics."

Spangler said he wanted to have a public gathering to educate people about the universe we are living in.

"This is really giving people a sense of what the Solar System is like," he said.

Thomas Barnes, the superintendent of the McDonald Observatory, said Iowa may only see portions of the transit because the Sun sets sooner compared with such places as Hawaii.

"We'll probably only see about a third of it," he said. "A place like Hawaii will see the whole deal."

National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Ferry said clouds can block the view of the transit.

"[If the sky is] overcast, people will not see it," he said prior to the event. "Ideally, there would be clear skies for something like this."

Even though the skies of Iowa City were overcast, blocking the view of the Sun, spectators were able see the transit on a webcam stationed in California, where there were clear skies.

The projector in a classroom of Van Allen Hall showed a vivid, up close picture of the Sun. Around 5:05 p.m., when the transit started, it looked like there was the tinniest dent in the upper left hand corner of the Sun.

As the minutes passed, the dent was more and more prominent, which is called the "black drop effect," Spangler said.

Once people saw the first stage of the complete transit at 5:22 they began to file out of the classroom. They went back up to the roof to see if the clouds had moved at all, but it was just as cloudy as ever.

"I am going to wait here," Spangler said. "The Sun may come right back out, and you can't beat seeing the live show."

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