Transit of Venus enthralls spectators at MU's Laws Observatory

Tuesday, June 5, 2012 | 10:44 p.m. CDT; updated 3:30 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Spectators gathered Tuesday at the MU Physics Building to view the transit of Venus.

COLUMBIA — It might have been hard to see, but it happened nonetheless.

As the sun blazed in the blue sky over MU, something strange was happening: Venus was slowly inching across the sun's path, creating a tiny blemish in its flaming glow.

Venus is farther away from the earth than the moon is, so its silhouette as it crosses the sun is much smaller than the one created during a solar eclipse — much too small to be seen with the naked eye. 

Additionally, if viewed without protection, the sun's rays can damage viewers' eyes.

The Central Missouri Astronomical Association and MU astronomers set up telescopes and binoculars fitted with filters at Laws Observatory so visitors could safely see the tiny dot crawl across the sun for the last time until 2117.

The transit of Venus wasn't visually stunning, but it still drew hordes of spectators to the observatory.

Angela Speck, professor and director of MU's astronomy program, stood at the doorway to the rooftop of the Physics Building and handed out solar glasses, another safe viewing technique the observatory offered. She estimated about 500 people visited the rooftop Tuesday evening.

Val Germann and two other members of the astronomical association staffed telescopes in the parking lot behind the observatory. Germann estimated that there were a few thousand people there.

Exact numbers aside, the turnout was huge. The line for the observatory telescope snaked down three flights of stairs. Some lines for the outside telescopes had a 20-minute wait. Even the binoculars and three telescopes positioned on the rooftop had lines that spanned its width.

Sonny and Becky Bradshaw didn't mind the wait, despite the heat. They said they came because it was the only time they could see the transit in their lifetimes.

"We're seeing it just because it's cool and rare," Sonny Bradshaw said.

"I would have felt like I missed out if I didn't come," Becky Bradshaw said.

Neither Bradshaw expected to see anything spectacular when they finally reached the telescopes, a feeling that was common for a lot of people.

"I know what I'm expecting to see," Angela Bunge, an MU student, said. "I watched the one from 2004 online."

Even seven-year-old Elizabeth Martin knew what she would see.

"I'm excited to see the sun," she said. "I'm going to see some black dots."

Despite low expectations, visitors were still excited to see the transit.

The Appleton family packed 15 people in a van and drove from Fulton just to come to the observatory's public viewing, said Tom Mahaney, who was with them.

Natalie Appleton, 8, Nathaniel Appleton, 7, Michael Appleton, 11, Joel Appleton, 3, and Suzannah Appleton, 10, looked through all three telescopes in the parking lot to see the transit.

They all said it was cool to see. Suzannah said she liked it because it was the last time to see it in 105 years. Michael said he was able to see sunspots through the telescope.

Joel described the size of Venus in the telescope by smashing his forefinger and thumb together and grinning.

"Tiny," he said.

Other observers were more precise in their descriptions. Karen Zipp said she saw a big orange ball with a black dot at about the 7 o'clock position when she looked through the telescope.

She, like Bunge, had seen the transit online, but wanted to see it in person.

"It was nice to see and think of what it really is, Zipp said. "I'm a Christian, and I believe God created Heaven, earth and the planets, and he speaks through it. Venus going in front of the sun is him speaking through this."

One spectator even came prepared with his own equipment. Paden Gentry, an MU student, bought a pair of welder's goggles for the event. He taped an extra number 10 lens on top because his goggles' lenses weren't the NASA-recommended number 14. Using his binoculars, he could just make out Venus on the fuzzy green ball glowing in the lenses.

"If you stare at it long enough, you can see a little dot," Gentry said.

Although he could see the transit through his homemade contraption, he wanted to look through a telescope to see a bigger, clearer version.

As Gentry and other visitors cycled through the different telescopes, the crowds died down, and the sun began to sink towards the horizon.

A hot air balloon floated gently over the observatory as the remaining spectators watched the sun set through their solar glasses.

By 8:15 p.m., just 15 minutes before sunset, sherbet-colored clouds drifted along the horizon, obscuring the sun and the rest of the transit.

As the breeze picked up and the temperatures dropped, astronomers and photographers packed up their equipment, and the remnants of the crowd trickled down the stairs, hanging onto a moment that won't come again in their lifetimes.

Supervising editor is Ann Elise Taylor.

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Scott Swafford June 5, 2012 | 11:08 p.m.

I'm curious. There are four prominent specks below Venus that form a distinct and consistent pattern in both Brad and Todd's remarkable photographs. Those specks can't be lens dust. Does anyone know what they are?

Scott Swafford, city editor
Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 6, 2012 | 4:42 a.m.

Sunspots. This is the peak of the sunspot cycle and you'd expect to see a few. THey help ionize the upper layers of atmosphere and propagate shortwave radio around the world.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 6, 2012 | 5:34 a.m.

Knowledge of the existence of Sun spots goes back to Galileo in the year 1610, but even today there's a lot astronomers have to learn about them. A spot is composed of a depressed dark center, the umbra, surrounded by a grayish penumbra. Individual spots may last anywhere from days to months, depending on size, and as Mark notes they increase and diminish in cycles.

Umbra temperature is around 4,500 degrees Kelvin, which is hot but cooler than surrounding areas of the Sun.

Two factors that influence formation of the spots and their apparent equatorial rotation on the Sun's surface are the sun's magnetic field and the fact that the Sun is rotating.

(Report Comment)
Angela Speck June 6, 2012 | 11:22 a.m.

If you attended the event, and enjoyed the viewing opportunities please let us know. If you came to the talk we had after the viewing and learned something new - let us know. More importantly let your State reps know that you appreciate what the University of Missouri does for you...

(Report Comment)

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