This year, on 5 and 6 June 2012, there is a very rare astronomical occurrence: a transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. There have only been six of these transits ever observed before – in 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874, 1882, and in 2004 – and this year’s transit is the last for 105 years!
So what exactly will you see, if you’re lucky enough to catch this last-chance-to-see event? If you’re able to look at the Sun safely you’ll see a tiny black dot moving slowly across the surface – that dot is the planet Venus! NASA has the exact times of the transit from major cities. Importantly, this transit is best seen from the Pacific. Observers in north and central America will see only the start of the transit before the Sun sets, while those of us in Europe will only catch the end of it if we’re up at sunrise.
UK observers: set your alarms! You’ll see the transit between sunrise and 0536 BST, at which point Venus begins leaving the Sun’s disk, taking about 18 minutes to do so.
Venus is 6000km across – just a little smaller than the Earth – and at transit it will be around 43 million km away, directly between us and the Sun. The Sun is 1.4 million km across and around 150 million km away. This means that, seen from Earth, Venus is only about 58 arcseconds in diameter, while the Sun is 1891 arcseconds across, about 33 times the apparent diameter of Venus. So: Venus small dot; Sun big bright ball.
Also, we know how far from the Sun Venus is (107 million km), and how long it takes to orbit the Sun (225 days), so we can work out how long it should take to pass across the Sun’s disk (around 6.5 hours). However the start and end times for the transit vary depending on where on Earth you’re observing, with observers in eastern Canada seeing Venus start to cross the Sun’s disk a whole thirteen minutes earlier than observers in Australia! This is because Canadians are looking at the transit from a slightly different angle than Australians.
Why transits of Venus are (were) important
If you have observations from two widely spaced points on the Earth’s surface, and if you time the start and end of transit accurately at each, you can work out the solar parallax, that is, the difference in position of the Sun when viewed from two different points on Earth, the two points being one Earth radius apart. (Hold your thumb up, close one eye, and obscure a distant object; now switch eyes, and your thumb appears to move with respect to the distant object. That’s parallax).
From the solar parallax, if you know the Earth’s radius, you can work out the Earth-Sun distance (known as the astronomical unit) using high-school trigonometry. This was important to astronomers in the 18th century, as up until then all we knew were the relative distances between all the planets in our solar system, not the actual distances. Once we had one measurement within the solar system – the astronomical unit, say – we could work out how far away everything else was.
The technique of using transits of Venus to work out the solar parallax was first suggested by Edmund Halley in 1716, after he had observed a much more common (although still only 13 times per century) transit of Mercury from the island of Saint Helena. Halley knew that Venus would give much more accurate measurements than Mercury, since it was closer to the Earth and so the angles would be easier to measure. He also knew that the next transit of Venus would happen in 1761, and urged future astronomers to make observations world-wide and thereby calculate the solar parallax, and from that the astronomical unit.
This was duly done, and a value for the astronomical unit of 153 million km was calculated. Later transits in the 19th century yielded a value of 149.59 million km. The current accepted value, calculated from telemetry from space craft is 149.60 million km, so the transit method worked pretty well.