Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Stargazers gather for Venus transit

Stargazers gather for Venus transit

Stargazers in Sydney and around the world gathered at observatories and huddled by telescopes Tuesday to watch a small dark disc creep across the face of the sun in one of the rarest of celestial spectacles - a transit of Venus.

The sight had special significance for Australians - this country's east coast was "discovered" by British explorer James Cook on his way home from viewing the 1769 transit in Tahiti.

Planetariums the world over - from India's eastern city of Bhubaneswar to New York City - set up telescopes with the solar filters needed to watch the event, while two observatories in Spain's Canary Islands planned to use the transit to recalculate the distance between the earth and sun.

A blue sky over Sydney gave about 40 people looking through telescopes at the city's observatory a clear view of the transit as it began mid-afternoon. Telescopes were set up on lawns and inside, while an image of the transit was projected onto a white screen for safe viewing.

"Venus is just marching into the sun," said Andrew Constantine, an education officer at the observatory. "It's very exciting."

But in many places clouds obscured the show, with observatories in Japan reporting rain and the transit coinciding with the cloudy monsoon season in Thailand.

It also was cloudy in Hong Kong, but that didn't stop more than 100 people, including students, senior citizens and children, queuing up at the Hong Kong Space Museum, where several telescopes were waiting.

Keith London, an amateur astronomer who lives at the foot of the Mt. Lofty Ranges in southern Australia, hosted a transit party and invited his neighbours to watch the show through his telescope thanks to a filter he had shipped from the United States specially for the event.

"We are going to have a transit party and everyone who isn't working is coming over," he said, adding he would hold off on sipping too much wine until the sun had set.

"You must never drive a telescope under the influence," he cautioned before the event started.

In Thailand, hundreds of people flocked to observatories across the country. But an overcast sky disappointed many.

Many people in predominantly Buddhist Thailand believe in astrological implications of planetary movements, especially rare ones.

"The Venus eclipsing the sun means that Venus will gain huge power, but the power will have a negative affect on finance and love," Phingyo Phongchareon, a well known astrologer, was quoted as saying in an interview with the Matichon newspaper.

In Beijing, the Ancient Observatory on the Chinese capital's east side set up a slide show to explain the phenomenon to visitors and had telescopes to watch the transit.

Transits of Venus occur twice - eight years apart - about every century, when the sun, Venus and Earth precisely line up. Past transits - the last pair were in 1874 and 1882 - helped astronomers calculate Earth's distance from the sun. This time, Tuesday's transit and one in 2012 carry little scientific significance, but they've still stirred up plenty of interest.
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