On Tuesday, June 5, my brother Steve and I were happy to stand among several hundred Transit of Venus spectators under clear skies atop Mount Wilson. Although we were treated to five hours of the event's duration, the lack of wi-fi connections prohibited those of us with the Transit of Venus phone app from contributing our observations. We could hardly complain, however, especially as reports of clouds and rain filed in from other sites. A wedding party of non-astronomers arrived at the Observatory to take advantage of the transit as a backdrop for their nuptials. Our group of antique telescope enthusiasts also entertained romance: A couple who had met in anticipation of the 2004 transit got engaged during this one. As Venus moved from first to second contact, he proposed and she said "Yes."
I've spent this week at the Sydney Writers' Festival in Australia, where I had the honor of giving the closing address on a topic of high local interest: the upcoming Transit of Venus. The rare passage of Venus across the Sun's face will be visible from all of eastern Australia, weather permitting, on June 6. Not only will locals get to see the six-plus-hour event in its entirety, but the history of their country is bound up with James Cook's voyage to view the 1769 Transit of Venus. After Cook completed his astronomical mission in Tahiti, he obeyed government orders to sail on to other southern lands, explore them, and claim them for the British crown. In the following century, with Australia in favored viewing position to see the transits of 1874 and 1882, observatories here purchased new telescopes and devised specialized cameras for the occasions. I've gotten so enthused discussing the June 6 prospects in Sydney that I need to keep reminding myself my own date with Venus is set for the day before, June 5, back home on the other side of the International Date Line. I'll be viewing the transit--the last one Earthlings will see till 2117--from the Mount Wilson Observatory in California.
The transits of the 18th and 19th centuries gave astronomers the means to gauge the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Although modern radar methods allow more precise Solar System measurements, the June event offers a unique opportunity to probe the atmosphere of Venus and to refine strategies for detecting Earth-like or Venus-like planets around other stars.
At the same time, amateurs the world over will get the chance to double-check the Earth-Sun distance in a new cooperative global enterprise.
The Transit of Venus app, available free, miniaturizes a shipload of expedition paraphernalia. Unavailable during the last transit, in 2004, the app enables anyone with the right eye protection and a smart phone to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
On the first truly frigid night of winter (Jan. 3-4), I set an alarm for 2 a.m. and went out to take in the Quadrantid Meteor Shower. I'm fond of meteor showers because they're so low-tech. You don't need a telescope to observe them, or even binoculars, but just the willingness to lie outside in the dark and look up.
Over-eager, I started my vigil too early. My fingers (inside mittens under blankets) froze before the first shooting stars arrived. While waiting I got reacquainted with the available constellations: the Big Dipper, from whose ladle the promised meteors would pour, Gemini standing on Orion's shoulders, and Leo, looking like a real lion, pinning Mars underfoot. The cloudless dark and absent Moon set up perfect viewing conditions.
I had the cordless phone in my coat pocket. Should the display turn spectacular, I would call a couple of not-quite-die-hards and encourage them to leave their beds. But I counted only eleven meteors in the two-plus hours I could bear the cold. The forecast had predicted as many as one hundred or more per hour. I wondered whether the friends I'd alerted in advance to these potential fireworks were also out somewhere in the night, perhaps annoyed with me for sending them on a fool's errand.
I found plenty of time to question what made me want to spend the pre-dawn hours this way, and also to realize why. Staring up at the unchanging pattern of the stars, panning for surprise, I thrilled every time a bright ball of fire materialized out of that reliable background to slide across the heavens in less than a moment.
The new year promises other meteor showers along with two major astronomical events -- the Transit of Venus in June and a total solar eclipse in November. Attendance at those sky shows will demand large investments of time and travel expense in addition to pluck, plus readiness for a different flavor of risk. No one doubts that the syzygies -- the exact planetary alignments that permit Venus to be seen crossing the Sun's face or a sector of Earth to immerse in the Moon's shadow -- will occur on schedule according to the laws of physics. The only question is, Will the local weather in any particular viewing area allow witnesses to watch the natural miracle unfold?