After voting, chance to witness rare astronomical event

Venus is seen in front of sun

Image: Nasa

The lead-up to the recall election between Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has caused exhausting struggles for Wisconsin voters, who have been forced to distinguish the correct path among two candidates that tout a variety of fundamental differences. Amid tense campaign rhetoric that will culminate with today’s election, there is still something larger that can put it all in perspective: a once-in-a-lifetime astronomic event — the Venus Transit.

A “transit” happens when a planet, either Mercury or Venus, moves between us and the Sun. To viewers, the planet appears to be a small black dot appearing across the surface of the Sun. These rare events helped the world’s earliest astronomers figure out the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Viewing the transit of Venus would be a fun outdoor activity to do today after voting — and it’s equally historic. An event like this won’t happen again for more than 100 years.

There are more than a few similarities between today’s recall election and the Venus transit, which can be seen in Wisconsin around 4:45 p.m. Only two U.S. governors have ever been successfully recalled, North Dakota governor Lynn Frazier in 1921 and California’s Gray Davis in 2003. As a result, Wisconsin’s governor recall will be the second this decade, but only the third-ever in American history. Weirdly, tonight’s solar-planetary event is also the second this decade (there was another as recently as 2004), yet there have been a mere six other transits since they were first observed in 1631.

Another strange coincidence is that 1631 was also the year when the idea of a recall first cropped up in America. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, one of the original thirteen colonies on what would become the United States, penned the right to recall elected officials into its early laws.

Easy on the eyes

The Venus transit will undoubtedly be beautiful, but don’t gaze at our sister planet without proper protection. Sunglasses won’t cut it. Three main tips for armchair transit viewers:

1) Buy number 14 welder’s glasses from a local hardware or home improvement store, the number is very important since they must be dark enough to prevent eye damage. Eclipse glasses purchased for the solar eclipse on May 20 will work just as well, too, but do not wear these while also looking through a telescope as this will melt the glasses. Some local planetariums, museums and observatories are hosting events and will be selling glasses: Look below for a list of some viewing opportunities in Wisconsin.

2) If you plan to look through your own home-use telescope, make sure it has a solar filter. Be wary of ones that screw on, because they can crack under the intense heat of a transit.

3) Although making a pinhole or mirror projector will cause you to lose a lot of the quality in viewing the transit, these are safer methods since you do not look directly at the Sun.

Where and when to view in Wisconsin

The 2004 transit was only visible only in the eastern half of the United States, but this year’s will be slightly better. It will begin in late afternoon and end after sundown. West Coast observers will see more than those in the East, so here in Wisconsin it is anybody’s guess how clear viewing will be. The staff of Washburn Observatory in Madison has joked that, in case of rain, the makeup date will be December 10, 2117, the date of the next transit.

Appleton/Menasha: Barlow Planetarium at UW-Fox Valley Appleton
New London: Mosquito Hill Nature Center Belgium
Dodgeville: Governor Dodge State Park
Eau Claire: Epiphany Lutheran Church
Fish Creek: Olde Stone Quarry Park
Franklin: Froemming Park Green Bay
New London: Mosquito Hill Nature Center
Hartford: Pike Lake State Park
Kenosha: Kemper Center at Carthage College
La Crosse: Grandad Bluff
Lake Church/Belgium: Harrington Beach State Park
Lake Geneva: Big Foot Beach State Park
Madison: UW Space Place, Washburn Observatory
Menasha/Appleton: Barlow Planetarium at UW-Fox Valley
Middleton: Keva Sports Center
Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Library rooftop, Manfred Olson Planetarium, Urban Ecology Center hosting event in Riverside Park
Mount Horeb: Donald Park
New Berlin: Milwaukee Astronomical Society
New London/Green Bay/Appleton: Mosquito Hill Nature Center
Newburg: Riveredge Nature Center
Racine: Modine-Bensted Observatory
Two Rivers: Woodland Dunes Nature Center & Preserve
Williams Bay: Yerkes Observatory Virtual stargazing

These organizations are filming the Venus transit event at locations around the world, and will stream live footage on their websites tonight: Slooh Space Camera, Astronomers Without Borders, and NASA.

Also, an astronaut who is on board the International Space Station, Don Pettit, aims to become the first person ever to capture a transit of Venus on film — from outer space.

So today, make sure to get out and vote in Wisconsin, and don’t miss your opportunity to see an equally rare astronomical event!

Contributed by Sarah Witman – Communications intern