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Headlines Published on 13 May 2004

Title No passengers permitted on this transit journey

As Venus catches up with the Earth, observers will be treated to one of the rarest events in our solar system, the Venus transit. Preparations are underway across Europe to witness and study this astronomical curiosity.     

A shot of Venus in the night sky above Shumen, Bulgaria © Source: c/- ESO
A shot of Venus in the night sky above Shumen, Bulgaria

© Source: c/- ESO
Stargazers may have noticed that Venus has had a twinkle in its eye recently. It appears larger in the sky as it gets closer to the Earth. At the end of April it was around 70 million km from our planet but, on 8 June, it will swing past 43 million km away – a close flyby in astronomical terms. Live images in the media and on the net will record this event.

For almost six hours on that day, it will be visible from Europe, Africa and much of Asia, and European astronomers hope to turn Venus’ transit – a small black spot moving slowly across the face of the sun – into a collective lesson in physics, mathematics and history. The European Union has assigned ‘Venus Transit 2004’ (VT-2004) as one of eight official Science Week activities, organised as part of its awareness raising and science prizes initiatives and which culminates in the second week of November. 

Claus Madsen of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) reckons the transit is a unique scientific experiment – so rare and yet, with high technology and greater awareness, more accessible to the public than ever. “[For] public awareness of science, it is a wonderful opportunity because it allows ordinary people to engage in a scientific experience, to try to understand what science is about, and how it can be done… the uncertainty, the setting up of an experiment, and its calibration across the world,” he told UK daily The Guardian.

Starlight star bright…
Venus takes 225 days to circle the Sun, whereas the Earth takes 365, so the two planets are not in the same plane of orbit. This brightest of ‘stars’ appears between the Sun and the Earth only four times every 243 years, with gaps of around 120 years, and then twice in an eight-year period.

During this special period, other astronomical events are worth noting. On 4 May, amateur and professional astronomers – in certain regions of the globe – experienced a total lunar eclipse when the Moon passed through the Earth’s shadow. This kind of celestial event is much more common than the VT and – in clear skies – offers a great view of a dark-red full Moon.

In fact, if you were standing on the surface of the Moon last week, ESO elaborates, you would see the Earth move in front of the Sun and block the sunlight – and this would be called an ‘Earth Transit’. Alas, for 300 Earth-bound observers, VT is the main event. Starting on 30 April, the members of the VT-2004 observation team will try to measure the exact times around the world when Venus passes what they call the Sun’s limb. The data will be submitted to the VT-2004 Centre via the corresponding website.

But this celestial transit is not just for professionals: amateur stargazers and hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren will also have their faces pointed skyward to witness this once-in-a-lifetime astronomical rarity. 

Source:  ESO and press info

Research Contacts page

More information:

  • European Southern Observatory (ESO)
  • Venus Transit 2004 Animations
  • Venus Transit extended info
  • Venus Transit 2004 Observing Campaign
  • Amateur observers’ website
  • European Science Week (Science and Society programme)
  • Sun spectacle to let school science shine (Guardian special, 15 March 2004)

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