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Transit of Venus arrives in June

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EVERY hundred years or so, the Earth, Venus and the sun queue up in a relatively straight line, and observers on Earth can watch our less-than-habitable sister planet drift across the face of the sun. The event, called the transit of Venus, takes place in pairs set eight years apart (the last one occurred June 8, 2004; the next will come June 5 or 6 this year, depending on your time zone), but they roll around only once a century or so. In his new book, Nick Lomb, longtime curator of astronomy at Australia's Sydney Observatory, gives the complete rundown on this astronomical event.

With the invention of the telescope in the 1600s, the transit of Venus became a hot ticket for astrophiles, who often went to great lengths to check it out. Captain James Cook sailed across the globe to Tahiti to view it in 1769. And not just because it looked cool.

By providing a third point of reference, the transit of Venus made it possible for astronomers to measure the distance from Earth to the sun, which unlocked a lot of data, including the mass of the sun and the other planets.

Lacking modern solar filters, observers had to watch the transit by positioning a telescope to project the sun's image onto a piece of paper in a darkened room. There's better equipment available these days. If you miss Venus's appearance in June, you'll have to wait a while -- until 2117 -- to catch the transit again.

 

-- Washington Post

 

Astronauts blog about otherworldly adventures

ON NASA's Fragile Oasis blog (find it at www.fragileoasis.org), astronauts from the United States and around the world have a forum to share their experiences, including descriptions of what it's like to grow vegetables in zero gravity, meditations on space travel and snapshots from out of this world. Recently, astronaut Don Pettit, a chemical engineer and all-around science expert aboard the international space station, posted about his pet project -- taking arty photographs from low-Earth orbit.

While the space station spins around the planet, it's also revolving on its own axis, meaning if you use a long exposure, you get pretty trippy results. In Pettit's photos, the stars have swirling light trails, the atmosphere glows green and the electric lights from cities shimmer beneath the clouds. It took a little bit of ingenuity, though.

To get the effect, Pettit needed a 15-minute exposure, which his digital camera couldn't accommodate. "To achieve the longer exposures, I do what many amateur astronomers do," he writes. "I take multiple 30-second exposures, then 'stack' them using imaging software, thus producing the longer exposure."

 

-- Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2012 A31

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