June 01, 2012

Public welcome to observe June 5 Venus transit

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A rare celestial event is swinging around next week and an academic department at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, along with a group of local sky watchers, is making it accessible to the public.

The Department of Physics in the College of Science, in association with the Astronomical Association of Southern Illinois, will cooperate on the department’s first public astronomy observation of the summer: a rare transit of Venus across the sun.  The event will happen beginning around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 5, with organizers making solar telescopes available near the Neckers Building, as well as on that building’s recently remodeled rooftop observatory deck.

Media Advisory

Reporters, photographers and news crews are welcome to cover this event. Contact Bob Baer, computer and electronics specialist in the physics department, at 618/453-2729 for more information.

Members of the public who would like to participate and observe the “nearby” planet scoot across the face of the sun are welcome to attend, and the event is free of charge.  Children are welcome with accompanying adult supervision.

Bob Baer, a computer and electronics specialist in the physics department who is helping coordinate the event, said the main purpose of hosting such events is to provide a public service and educational outreach.

“We get all ages of people, but the kids seem the most excited when they first see something like Jupiter with its moons clearly visible, or the rings of Saturn,” he said.  “This event is special because it starts with a daytime observation of the transit of Venus across the sun.

“Venus is an inferior planet, which means it orbits closer to the sun than the Earth,” Baer said. “Venus’ orbit will occasionally take it on a path that puts it directly in front of the sun as we see it from the Earth.”

Once this event is over, it will not occur again until 2117.  But that doesn’t mean you should run outside to watch. That could lead to serious vision damage and blindness.

“You can not look directly at the sun to view this event without a special filter to protect your eyes,” warned Baer. “We will have several telescopes set up with filters for people to safely view the event. With the telescopes, you can not only see Venus moving slowly across the sun, but you can observe active sunspots on the surface of the sun.

In addition to the telescopes, organizers also will give away a limited number of solar filter glasses that can be used to look at the transit without any magnification, Baer said.

Once the sun is down, participants can stick around for what organizers hope will be some stunning views of Saturn and Mars, weather permitting.

The physics department has a strong inventory of observational tools at its disposal, including its observation deck on the roof the Neckers Building. Faculty members use the deck primarily for labs associated with the department’s undergraduate astronomy course.

The department’s primary observation telescope is a microprocessor-controlled 10-inch Cassegrain reflector model. It uses a computer, global positioning technology and a database of star locations to find and track deep-sky objects and planets, Baer said. The department also has several additional, more portable telescopes, including a classic Alvan Clark & Sons 6-inch refractor model built in 1891.

“I have been doing outreach events like this one for about a decade (but) observations have been a part of our department’s history for a very long time,” Baer said. “I’m not sure exactly when observations started, but I think they were a part of campus from very early on in the University’s history.”

The physics department plays host to a series of free public observations each year, with most held on Sunday evenings when light levels on campus are lowest. When the weather is cooperative, participants typically observe bright sky objects such as the moon, major planets, star clusters, nebula and some deep sky objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy. On clear nights, participants can easily see the rings of Saturn and Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Dimmer, deep sky objects are typically only visible during cooler evenings when humidity levels and cloud cover are low.

Space at observation events is limited, so large groups should contact the event coordinator in advance when planning to attend.

Additional observations scheduled for this year include:

            • 9:30-11 p.m. Sunday, July 1

            • 9:15-11 p.m. Sunday, July 29

            • 8:45-10:45 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 26

The observation deck is located on the southwest roof of the Neckers Building at 1245 Lincoln Drive, above the building’s A wing. Participants should enter the building through the west doors facing the parking lot and take the stairs up to the fourth floor where they will meet outside Neckers 456.  They can then follow the signs from there up the southwest stairwell to the deck.

For more information, visit http://www.physics.siu.edu/events/astronomy/index.html or https://www.facebook.com/SIUC.Physics. For more information on the Astronomical Association of Southern Illinois, go to http://sites.google.com/site/astronomyinsouthernillinois/.