A little after 6 p.m. Tuesday, Northern Virginia residents will have an opportunity to witness one of the rarest predictable celestial events: a transit of Venus.
Often referred to as the "Evening Star" or "Morning Star," Venus is the brightest natural object in our sky after the sun and the moon. It's also the second planet from the sun.
A "transit" of Venus occurs when Venus passes between Earth and the sun in such a way that we can see Venus's silhouette backlit by the sun's brilliant light. It last happened in 2004, but it won't happen again until 2117. Unless you plan to shatter some human longevity records, this is probably your last chance.
Were Venus either large enough or close enough to block out the sun's light as it passed, we would call this event an eclipse, as we do when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun. Venus, however, is a little bit smaller than the Earth and about 27 million miles away. When its tiny silhouette is viewed against the sun, which lies another 66 million miles beyond, it can offer viewers a dramatic sense of the solar system's vast scale.
Assuming sufficiently clear skies, the transit will be visible in Northern Virginia starting at about 6:04 p.m. Tuesday and will remain so until the sun sets. Those in the central and western U.S. will be able to enjoy it longer, while viewers in Alaska, Japan, and large sections of Australia, China and Russia will be able to see it in its entirety. By the time the sun rises on the East Coast on Wednesday, Venus will have completed its transit.
Where and How to Watch
Arlington County has at least two prime spots to watch — and learn about — the celestial event.
Displays, telescopes and transit-viewing glasses will be available at the Kettler Iceplex, 627 N. Glebe Road, beginning at 5:45 p.m. The event is free, though the Friends of Arlington's Planetarium, which is hosting the viewing, will accept donations.
Also, Gettysburg College astronomy professor Larry Marschall will present "The Transit of Venus: The Space Race of the 19th Century" from 4 to 5 p.m. Tuesday in the atrium of the National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Blvd. The presentation is free.
Never look directly at the sun with your naked eyes. Likewise, viewing the sun with either binoculars or a telescope can direct the sun's magnified rays directly into your eyeball and cause serious injury.
Sunglasses do not provide sufficient protection. If you know someone who works in plumbing or construction, ask them if they have any No. 14 welder's glasses. You can look directly at the sun through this material without risking injury.
If you have a tripod or a partner and a pair of steady hands, you can use binoculars to project an image of the sun onto a white piece of paper. Remember, don't look through your binoculars at the sun.
Though it's not quite the same as viewing the phenomenon in person, there are several places to watch the transit of Venus online:
- The Slooh Space Camera will offer an eight-hour webcast of the transit that includes real-time video feeds from 10 telescopes around the world.
- Astronomers Without Borders will carry a video stream of the transit from the Mount Wilson Observatory in California.
- NASA will offer a live video feed from Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii with expert commentary.
- The San Francisco Exploratorium will host an online video stream from the Mauna Loa telescope in Hawaii.
Lastly, there's Don Pettit, an astronaut currently aboard the International Space Station. Pettit's not doing a video feed, but he will become the first person to ever photograph a transit of Venus from outer space.