A sight for your skies

The last time a Venus transit took place was in 1882.
YOUNGSTOWN -- As the world prepares for an astrological phenomenon that hasn't happened in more than 120 years, Mahoning Valley astronomers are planning events to help local residents take part in the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Valley residents will be able to watch Venus pass across the sun during what's called the transit of Venus on June 8. One of the rarest of the planetary alignments, the transit happens only when the Earth, Venus and the sun are lined up perfectly with one another. The last time a Venus transit took place was in 1882.
"The importance of this isn't so much scientific now, but it's cool because no one on earth has seen it," said Sharon Shanks, a lecturer at Youngstown State University's Ward Beecher Planetarium. "You can see it now; then it will be visible again in 2012, then you won't be able to see it again in your lifetime."
In 1882, the event had more scientific significance because astronomers -- without radar and laser capabilities -- were able to time the transit and use it to determine distances between the planets and the sun, Shanks said.
"The knowledge we have now had to come from somewhere, and it was these people in 1882, who watched the transit, who gave us that knowledge," she said. "So it's really a part of history."
Catch it now
Bob Miller, a science instructor at the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center, likened the transit of Venus to Halley's Comet. "It's almost a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing."
Miller said Venus will appear as a small black disc as it moves across the sun in the early morning. He compared the sun to the size of a beach ball with Venus the size of a nickel.
Venus will travel across the lower half of the sun and the transit will be in progress by the time the sun rises in our area at 5:48 a.m. June 8. It will take the planet about 6.2 hours to totally cross the face of the sun.
The YSU planetarium reports transits always take place in pairs separated by 16 years because of the orbits of Earth and Venus. The next transit of the current pair will be in 2012, then 105 years will pass before the phenomenon is visible again.
Both the YSU planetarium and the career and technical center will have events regarding the transit.
Planetarium program
The planetarium presents the "Transit of Venus" program at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and June 4 and 5. The planetarium is in the Ward Beecher Science Hall, Room 2001.
The career and technical center, at 7300 N. Palmyra Road in Canfield, has an astronomy/physics day, starting at 8:30 p.m. June 7 and featuring activities including crafts for youngsters and telescope viewing of the moon, Saturn, Jupiter and deep space objects, as weather permits.
The center hosts a viewing of the transit beginning at 6 a.m. June 8 and lasting until about 8 a.m. Miller said telescopes with solar filters will be on hand so the transit can be viewed safely.
Shanks said she plans to provide 100 pairs of viewing glasses for the morning event.
In Pennsylvania, safe public viewing will be offered free on the outdoor observation deck outside the Upper Station of The Duquesne Incline on Pittsburgh's Mount Washington just after sunrise June 8.
Although it is not safe to look directly at the sun, the transit can be observed safely in other ways, including filter-equipped telescopes, through No. 14 welder's glass or using an indirect "pinhole" projection of the sun onto paper, Shanks said.
One source of inexpensive eclipse shades is www.rainbowsymphony.com. Tips for indirect viewing are available at www.shu.ac.uk/eclipse/observe.html or sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/sunearthday/2004. Educational materials also are available at this site and at www.transitofvenus.org.
For more information, contact the YSU planetarium at (330) 941-3619, (330) 941-7278 or (330) 941-3615. Contact the career and technical center at (330) 729-4000.

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