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Rare 'transit of Venus' observed through MC telescope

Barry McNamara
06/08/2012
Monmouth College's telescope captured this image of Venus passing across the face of the sun.
Monmouth College hosted a “transit of Venus” event on June 5, enabling more than two dozen astronomy fans to see what has been called one of the “rarest predictable astronomical phenomena.”

Physics faculty members Chris Fasano and Tim Stiles were pleased to help the small group see the planet Venus make its way across the sun, which it does in pairs separated by eight years. The first part of the recent pairing occurred on June 8, 2004, while the previous pair of transits happened in 1874 and 1882.

The professors said they are both looking forward to the completion of the college’s Center for Science and Business, which will feature a full-fledged observatory.

“It’s always fun for me to see how excited people get when they look through a telescope,” said Fasano. “They’re like, ‘Wow! That’s really there!’ The transit was a nice opportunity for them. They not only saw Venus, but sunspots of a comparable size to Venus were also visible. That gives you an idea of how big the storms are on the sun.”

“I thought it was pretty amazing,” said Stiles, who had the transit date circled on his calendar for more than a month. “We got some nice images, too. My 4-year-old daughter was surprised that Venus wasn’t an octagon. She thought there’d be corners. My son calculated that he’d be 112 years old when it happens again.”

That will be in 2117, but the two professors also enjoyed speaking about a previous transit event in 1639.

“That was the Apollo of its era,” said Fasano of the event, which spawned “a tour de force measurement.”

“There were telescopes set up all over the world,” Stiles elaborated. “You can fairly easily measure the relative distance from the Earth to the sun and from Earth to the other planets. But it’s much more difficult to measure the absolute distance from the Earth to the sun, and that’s what the transit event in 1639 helped astronomers to do.”

Stiles said the 2012 transit also provided research opportunities, particularly related to the search for exoplanets, or planets located outside the solar system.

While Monmouth College courses such as Artificial Intelligence and Forensic Science are associated with modern developments, “astronomy is one of the original seven liberal arts,” said Fasano (the others, by the way, were grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry and music). “It holds a natural place in our curriculum and in our pursuits as a liberal arts college.”

Currently, the college offers a single “descriptive” astronomy course, as well as Cosmology and Creation, a course in its “Reflections” curriculum. In the future, Fasano would like to see a more quantitative astronomy course geared for physics majors, as well as an introductory astrophysics course.

Another welcome addition to the college’s educational toolbox, the professors agreed, would be a larger telescope to install in the new observatory. While it would be an improvement to have the college’s 8-inch telescope permanently mounted, a 16-inch model would increase the visibility into space by a power of four.

The observatory will also allow for better winter viewing, eliminating the thermalization process that can lead to fuzzy images, while also providing the capacity to stream the telescope’s images live over the Internet.

Once the observatory is up and running, the professors plan for their students to organize regular viewing nights, as well as plan for more special events, such as a solar eclipse that will occur five years from now.

“Monmouth is going to be just outside the area of totality for that event,” Stiles said.