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Transit of Venus Historically Scientific

Posted: 1:09 PM Jun 4, 2012
Reporter: Kyril (Ky) Plaskon

If you want a sense of history, our proximity to the sun and how massive the sun is compared to our planet, Tuesday is the big day. A tiny dot will pass in front of the sun beginning at 3 p.m. in Reno.

“If we were like 50 million miles away, that is what we would look like,” said Dan Ruby for the Fleishman Planetarium.

That tiny dot will be our sister planet, Venus pass in front of the sun.

“Venus will be a small black dot, but pretty visible,” he said.

If you want to see it, you can use the same sun glasses used for looking at the solar eclipse a few weeks ago. While it will look like two large disks, the planets are spheres and Ruby says you could fit about a million Earths inside the sun.

If you don’t have glasses, the planetarium is selling them for $2. But unlike the solar eclipse when the planetarium held a viewing parting, this time, selling sunglasses is the extent of the planetariums role in the interstellar event. The UNR Physics department is taking the lead this time with a viewing party.

“They (physics department) are taking the lead on this because it is a more historically scientific thing,” Ruby says. “It (planetary transit) used to be how we figured out how far away from the sun we are and that is more interesting to astronomers than the general public.”

In layman’s terms, here’s how they figured it out. We start with the difference between the recent solar eclipse.

“The solar eclipse was spectacular and short and a really neat sight,” Ruby said.

But that eclipse was only visible on a small stretch of the earth from China through parts of the US including Reno. This Venus transit is different and much more widely visible.

“The only people that don’t get to see it is most of South America and the western half of Africa,” Ruby said.

Since it is visible in many more places, astronomers prior to the 1700 could use the transit to time the different points on the earth where the transit was visible. Then they used the time and position to calculate the distance to the sun. The method they use is called "Parallax" and it defined as a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight. It is similar to how our eyes work to figure out the distance to an object. And, it worked pretty well.

“I think they got an estimate of 80 to 100 million miles from the sun and now we know we are actually 93 million miles from the sun,” Ruby said. “They got within 10 million miles which is 10 percent which is not bad at the time.”

If you would like a more scientific explanation, tomorrow is also your chance to get that in person: The planetarium is assisting the University of Nevada, Reno department of physics to host public telescope viewing from the observatory at the Redfield Campus beginning at 3 p.m., weather permitting.

If the weather doesn't cooperate for Northern Nevada, NASA has links to webcasts of the event from around the globe: http://sunearthday.nasa.gov/transitofvenus/

For more info, visit: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/venus-transit/en/
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