Venus’ Transits Through History

Venus passing into the disk of the Sun during the 2004 transit. Credit: NASA

In a matter of hours, lucky observers with clear skies will be able to watch Venus pass in front of the Sun. Transits of Venus are rare – this is the last one until 2117 – but that’s not the only reason you should find a way to watch it. This astronomical event is historically very significant. Since the 17th century astronomers have used Venus transits to better understand the Universe and our place within in, and the upcoming transit doesn’t break this centuries-old tradition.

Over the course of astronomy’s history, Venus transits have shaped and given size to our Solar System. Now, transits are helping us understand our place in the Universe relative not only to other planets and stars but to other possible worlds and life forms. Read my full article on the historical significance of Venus transits on Scientific American’s Guest Blog. Context, I firmly believe, gives us all a much greater appreciation for a cosmic event on such a huge scale.

The Upcoming Transit of Venus

This June, Venus is going to make a rare transit across the disk of the sun as observed from Earth. Transits of Venus are rare. They come in pairs eight years apart, but each pair is separated by 105.5 years or 125.5 years. The upcoming transit is the pair to one that occurred in 2004, so if you miss this one you won’t have a chance to see another until 2117.  (Left, three views of the 2004 transit.)

Since it’s highly unadvisable to look directly at the sun, watching a transit is best done with protective eye gear or by looking at the sunlight reflected off something. That’s what the Hubble Space Telescope is going to do. Like us, Hubble can’t look directly at the sun, so its going to observe the transit of Venus by measuring the light reflected off the Moon. It’s an amazing method, and the observations Hubble makes will go towards answering questions about our planet and our place in the Universe. Read the full story about Hubble’s plans for the transit of Venus at Discovery News.

JWST: Cosmic TiVo

This week, the James Webb Space Telescope (JSWT) got its brain, or at least the bit responsible for its memory. The first solid-state electronics unit that will store the telescope’s data was delivered from SEAKR Engineer to the telescope’s builder, Northrop Grumman. It’s the same technology that’s inside devices like DVRs, meaning JWST is about to turn into a cosmic TiVo. Read the full article on Discovery News, where I am pleased to say I am a new writer! (Left, the JWST. NASA.)

Mars, a Victorian Sensation

Like Venus, Mars has long been an object of fascination to men – the red wanderer among the heavens, historically associated with the God of war, whose retrograde motions baffled astronomers for centuries. More than any other planet, Mars has experienced oscillating periods of interest; it has dominated astronomical studies as an irregularity and a world teeming with intelligent life, and falling into disinterst as a cold world. The trend has continued in the modern era of space exploration, with rovers and orbital spacecraft returning periodically to the red planet to explore the latest point of interest. (Pictured: Mars.)

Before this modern technological era, Mars enjoyed great popularity in the Victorian era as a life-harbouring planet. Emerging technologies applied to Martian studies combined with wildly fantastical theories to paint Mars as a probable second Earth – long before proposals of terraforming and colonization. [Read more…]