Transit of Venus Causes Mass Transit of Visitors to NASA Ames
Approximately 6,000 astronomy enthusiasts of all ages gathered at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. to view Venus cross in front of, or transit, the sun. People from all around the Bay Area -- as well as one dedicated enthusiast who came from Seattle specifically for the transit -- were drawn to Ames for its unique educational and viewing opportunities pertaining to the rare celestial event that took place on June 5, 2012, and will not occur again until December 2117.
At the beginning of the program, attendees perused exhibits set up within the visitor center
, gleaning information about astronauts and life in space. The vast amount of people interested in learning about the solar event crowded the room to the extent that additional chairs were brought up from storage to accommodate them, and people needed to be counted at the door to prevent the center from exceeding maximum capacity. Once inside, children eagerly poked their heads through astronaut cutouts and walked through a model of the International Space Station interior as their parents snapped photos. Natalie Batalha, Kepler mission scientist at Ames, gave a talk about how astronomers are using transit events today to search for other worlds beyond our galaxy. After the talk, attention turned to the live NASA TV feed of the event from atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Videos on the history of Venus and its major contributors, including 17th century German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler, were featured in the programming.
Kepler's role as the first person to predict the Venus transit made the event especially significant at Ames because the center's current Kepler space mission
is named after him. Moreover, the way Kepler, the astronomer, used transits to determine the location of planets in our solar system in the 17th century is similar to the method the Kepler space telescope uses to discover exoplanets today. Using ideas attributed to its namesake, the Kepler space observatory looks for the data signatures of planets by measuring tiny decreases in the brightness of stars when planets transit them. The size of the planet can be derived from the change in the star's brightness.
With newly-obtained knowledge of planetary transit and pairs of solar-filtering glasses in hand, attendees ventured outside after the video to observe the long-awaited event. Adults and children alike stood in the center's parking lot, watching Venus puncture the edge of the sun and slowly inch across the surface. Many seized the opportunity to view the event through solar-filtering telescopes set up throughout the parking lot by several organizations, including the San Jose Astronomical Association, the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers and the Santa Cruz Astronomy Club. Although the image itself was undetailed and rather simple -- a small black speck within a larger white circle -- the significance of the event was palpable. The fact that it is highly unlikely that anyone present at the viewing will live to see the next pair of Venus transits serves as a reminder that, in the context of the universe, we are present for a mere fraction of time.
Deena Khattab, 650-604-4789
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.