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Planetarium Facilitates Last Chance To See Venus Cross Sun's Face

Printed with permission of the Daily News-Record

Posted: June 1, 2012
By Kate Kersey

Tuesday will bring a once-in-a-lifetime event when our neighboring planet Venus transits the face of the sun — a crossing that won't happen again for more than a century.

Shanil Virani, director of the John C. Wells Planetarium at James Madison University, explained.

"Venus is the second planet from the sun; next closest than us. It will come between us and the sun, thereby allowing us to view this part of [its] orbit."

Venus transits occur in pairs, eight years apart. These pairs occur in cycles of either 105.5 to 121.5 years. After the transit on Tuesday, the next is predicted to occur in December 2117.

According to Dr. Geary Albright of the JMU Physics department, Edmund Halley, the astronomer for which Halley's Comet is named, was the one who realized the transit could be used to determine the scale of the solar system.

Testing Halley's theory, observations and calculations made by various observers established the Astronomical Unit, which measures the distance between the Earth and the sun, according to Chuck Bueter, astronomy educator.

On Saturday at 3 p.m., Dr. Albright will give a public presentation at the planetarium, located in Miller Hall on the JMU campus. Through stories, he will relay the significance of the transit.

Although, historically, the transit was used to solve quandaries we now have the answers to, it remains significant.

"[The transit] is not just historical, it is the leading edge in the future of astronomy," said Bueter.

The crossing is slated to start around 6:04 p.m. Tuesday. The "viewing party" will assemble in the JMU Astronomy Park, located between the Physics and Chemistry Building and the Skyline dormitories on East Campus.

Virani said eye safety is the No. 1 concern. Therefore, planetarium staff will set up solar telescopes, specifically designed to view the event safely.

One of the telescopes will be connected to a camera in order to project the transit onto a screen in the amphitheater, located behind the Physics and Chemistry Building.

"Families could pack a picnic for dinner, come hang out at the amphitheater in the Astronomy Park and watch the transit on the big screen," said Virani.

If you do choose to observe the transit on your own, Virani offered this tip: Do not look directly at the sun, period. No sunglasses, telescopes or binoculars will offer enough protection. Instead, use solar telescopes, glasses with appropriate sun filters built in, or by placing a sun filter on a normal telescope. Under no circumstances should homemade equipment be used, said Bueter.

In case of inclement weather, there is a back-up plan: A NASA telescope, which sits atop Mauna Kea - a volcano on the island of Hawaii - will transmit video of the transit, which JMU will provide via webcast. Live coverage will also be shown in the Health and Human Services building, Room 1302.

It will be an event to remember, says Virani.

"[You'll be able to] say you've seen something you'll never see again in your life!"

For more information, visit www.transitofvenus.org or www.facebook.com/jmu.planetarium.

Contact Kate Kersey at 574-6280 or kkersey@dnronline.com.