NNSL Photo/Graphic

Canadian North

Home page text size buttonsbigger textsmall textText size Email this articleE-mail this page

A wonderful sense of discovery
Transit of Venus attracts observers in Smith

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Monday, June 11, 2012

People in Fort Smith joined millions of others around the world on June 5 to gaze skyward for a rare occurrence in the heavens.

NNSL photo/graphic

Faye Heron uses eye protection to look at the transit of Venus - when the planet passed between the Earth and the sun on June 5. - Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

What got so many people looking up was the transit of Venus - a celestial event that will not happen again for another 105 years.

"So we might as well have a look at it while we get a chance," said George Kurszewski, one of dozens of people at a special gathering in Fort Smith to view the phenomenon.

This transit occurs when Venus passes between the Earth and the sun. As it does, the planet can be seen for over six hours as a dot crossing the face of our solar system's star.

Venus transits happen in pairs, which are separated by eight years. The first in the current pair of transits happened in 2004.

However, there are 105 years between pairs, meaning the next transit won't be seen until 2117.

The Fort Smith viewing event was set up by the Thebacha and Wood Buffalo Astronomical Society.

Many people were drawn to the event because it was their last chance to see the transit, including Mike Vassal, who said it was "absolutely" special to see the phenomenon.

"It's an astronomical event that happens twice in our lifetime, but it won't happen again for another 105 years," he said. "So I wanted to see it."

Vassal said the transit basically looked like the pictures he'd seen in advance - a black dot against the sun.

"I suppose looking at it is not spectacular, but it's more the implications of it are really neat," he said, noting, for instance, the transit of Venus was used in 1700s to calculate the distance from the Earth to the sun.

Faye Heron and her 10-year-old daughter Chelsea Heron were also on hand to witness the transit.

Heron said she was interested in seeing the phenomenon because it won't be seen for another 105 years.

"It does make it very special," she said. "I remember as a child seeing Halley's Comet. So I explained it to my daughter as something that she could relate it to, because she won't be able to see (the transit of Venus) again probably in her lifetime."

Chelsea Heron said it was a "cool" experience to see the dot against the sun.

The Thebacha and Wood Buffalo Astronomical Society set up its viewing area in Conibear Park.

"At this time of year, it's a challenge to hold dark-sky events, so we were presented with a unique opportunity here to observe a solar phenomenon," said Tim Gauthier, vice-chair of the society. "In this case, the transit of Venus is a clearly observable phenomenon and it kind of gives people insight into how solar mechanics works. You can actually see this planet moving right across the face of the sun."

The society provided a number of ways for people to safely view the transit.

A telescope projected an image of the sun onto a white screen, and Venus could be seen as a dot against the much larger sun.

"We've just turned the telescope into a projector," Gauthier said.

People were also given the opportunity to look at the sun through sheets of welding glass, which required a darkness rating of 14 to be used safely.

Plus, they could also look through special glasses provided by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

"It's pretty simple equipment and I think that's an important point," Gauthier noted. "People think you need complex machinery to enjoy the night sky, to enjoy solar phenomenon like this, and you really don't."

The society also showed people how to make pinhole telescopes - two sheets of paper, one with a pinhole through which the sunlight shines and projects an image of the sun on the other sheet.

"Fancy machinery is not necessarily the key, just an interest in the sky," Gauthier said.

About 50 people dropped in during the three hours the society had the viewing area set up.

"We are thrilled," Gauthier said. "So far, it's our most successful event."

The weather also generally co-operated, even though it was a partly cloudy day.

"We were very worried, but the variable cloud allowed a couple of moments of really, really great observation," Gauthier said of spotting the dot of Venus against the sun. "It was wonderful seeing the kids' faces as we focused the lens and all of a sudden it just popped into view and the kids went, "Oh, I see it! There it is!" There was kind of a wonderful sense of discovery."

E-mailWe welcome your opinions. Click here to e-mail a letter to the editor.