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How to Watch the Venus Transit

Here's a guide to today's event, where to view it and how, without being blinded by the light

 

Today, June 5, a rare astronomical event, the transit of Venus, will occur when the planet Venus will be visible as it moves across the face of the sun and partially blocks its light from reaching Earth.

This is the last chance for anyone alive today to see the transit of Venus, since it won't happen again until 2117. The complete transit will take about six and a half hours.

In this area, the transit begins at 3:06 p.m.; mid-transit, 6:25 p.m.; sunset, 8:29 p.m.

But as with the recent solar eclipse, it's crucial that you choose a safe way to view the transit. Looking directly at it would damage your eye's retina, the light-sensitive area at the back of the eye that provides central vision. 

Safe options include:

  • Watch the transit at a planetarium or program by a university astronomy department. Because Venus will look quite tiny against the sun's vast surface, it will be best to watch this amazing event via professional projection on a large screen.
  • Visit NASA's website for a live-streaming broadcast and enjoy a live chat with scientists, if you like.
  • Make a simple "pinhole camera" using two sheets of paper: make a pinhole in the center of one sheet; then stand with your back to the sun, holding that sheet so that the sun shines through the pinhole onto the second piece of paper. You'll see an image of the transit of Venus projected on the second sheet.

The following devices will not protect your eyes: sunglasses, binoculars with filters, neutral density filters, or exposed photographic or radiographic film.

Local Bay Area viewing spots include places like the or NASA/Ames’ Exploration Center.

Here in Sonoma County, residents are also enjoying the Robert Ferguson Observatory in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, off Highway 12 near Kenwood.

Also, here is a larger list of the Astronomical Association of Northern California.

“We have families, multi-generational ones, who come, and it’s the grandparents or the parents who grew up with NASA and the space race who are really driving it,” said Melissa Rosengard, of the Chabot Space Center in Oakland. The end of the space shuttle had a sad feeling for those who grew up in the 1960s when the space program had experienced success and achievement, she said,

“And with the private SpaceX’s Dragon mission that just completed, it’s helped to build the excitement,” she said, referring to the first private commercial craft to dock at the International Space Station on May 31.

Chabot has opened its deck three times in the past 17 days to crowds eager to see something extraordinary, and to share that feeling with a like-minded crowd. They’re drawn by in learning more about the things happening in the sky. NASA is going to be showing alive webstream from Mauna Kea, where telescopes point at the sky from the island of Hawaii, and the atmosphere is clear. ’s observatory expects crowds eager to catch the limning effect and “the Black Drop.”

But it’s not just big institutions dedicated to space that are spreading the excitement.

Amateur astronomical society volunteers are getting ready to haul out their telescopes for a third time Tuesday, after having just brought them out for the recent partial lunar eclipse.

Volunteers like Sunnyvale resident Kerry Paul, a longtime member of the Peninsula Astronomical Society, will set up their telescopes in the parking lot outside of Foothill Observatory to handle the overflow crowds.

We asked Chabot staff astronomer Ben Burress what’s the big deal.

 “You're part of history,” he said. "You don't want to miss it, it won't happen again in your lifetime." He waxed effusively about seeing the first part of the pair eight years ago—and that wasn’t even in person, it was via webcast from Turkey.

Scientifically, it was a huge advance, he said. This viewing is only the eighth in all of human history, because the telescope wasn't invented until 1608. In 1639 observation expeditions went out across the planet to triangulate to figure out how far away the sun was. "Once we got that ruler, we then knew the whole scale of the solar system." 

It’s not quite as impressive as the annular eclipse of the sun, the one that we just saw on May 20. It’s more like a dot, traveling along one side of the sun.

“It’s not just any dot,” Burress said. “This is the history of Venus. Capt. Cook saw it in the 1769 in Tahiti, that’s why there’s a place called Venus Fort in Maitavai Bay."

In the Bay Area, we are on the edge of the transit, Burress said. “We will see the beginning of it, 4-5 hours of it.” To see the end, look for the live webcast from the Big Island in Hawaii, at the observatory at Mauna Kea, at altitudes where the atmosphere is very clear and an array of giant telescopes are pointed toward the sky.

And there are phenomena to look for. The time to watch is the beginning and the end of Venus’ trek across the face of the sun, Burress said.

Here's how to sound like you know what you’re talking about:

  • Tell people you’re going to be there at the beginning, because that’s where the action’s at.
  • Start tossing around terms, like “the Black Drop Effect” and impress your friends, or 
  • Ask fellow viewers if they can discern the aureole at the beginning or the end of Venus’ trek

The Black Drop Effect is a blurring caused by Earth's atmosphere, Burress said. Depending on atmospheric conditions and the telescope used, when Venus is close to the edge of the sun, it blurs, and looks like a teardrop. “It confounded scientists in the expeditions in 1761 and 1769 pair,” Burress said. “They needed to have very exact timing, down to the second. The black drop effect obscured that moment, making it difficult to tell when Venus touched the sun. By the next century 1874 and 1882 they were ready for it.”

As Venus "touches" the sun you can also look for a lighted rim of Venus on the side still extending into space, coming from Venus' atmosphere. It was the first observational evidence that Venus had an atmosphere, Burress said.  

, be safe. do not look at the sun without appropriate solar viewing lenses. Because the Transit of Venus appears as a dot, this is an occasion where going to an observatory could be a better experience than viewing it alone or via a .

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