x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Stargazers caught in Venus eye-trap

Enthusiasts gather at Sharjah university for a glimpse of the rare event and a little education.

Amateur Astronomers and  Students gather at the American University of Sharjah to watch Venus transit across the surface of the sun.
Amateur Astronomers and Students gather at the American University of Sharjah to watch Venus transit across the surface of the sun.

SHARJAH // Craning their necks and squinting through telescopes and protective glasses, dozens of schoolchildren yesterday joined a couple of hundred stargazers for a rare sight of Venus gliding past the sun’s face.

Before heading to school, college and work, the astronomy enthusiasts went to the American University of Sharjah (AUS) to watch the transit of Venus.

The last such event for more than a century, the transit occurs when the planet passes directly between the sun and the Earth.

“I feel like an insect in a huge universe,” said Habiba Hariri, 12, from the New World Private School, who went with her brother and sister for the viewing. “I loved it. I want to grow up and be an astronomer. I love seeing the universe.”

The sight of a black speck against an orange, blazing giant will not happen again for another 105 years.

The transit of Venus was visible yesterday from the eastern hemisphere, and from the western hemisphere on Tuesday.

To many sky watchers, it brought home the  enormity of the sun: a planet almost the same size as Earth looked like a speck against it.

“Imagine the next time I see this in 105 years, I’ll be in heaven!” said Vishaan Anchan, 10, from Sharjah’s Our Own School.

Vishaan spent half an hour checking telescopes with a friend and his father. “The Earth is so small,” he said. “Today, I could see how 3.5 billion Earths can fit in the sun. And in all this I am a mini-organism.”

The last Venus transit was on June 8, 2004. The event tends to happen in pairs that are eight years apart, before the long wait for the next two.

Before 2004, the last pair of transits were in December 1874 and December 1882. They have occurred only seven times since the invention of the telescope more than 400 years ago.

In the UAE yesterday, sky watchers saw Venus’s silhouette cut across the top part of the sun between 5.30am and 8.30am.

For scientists, it was not just about capturing inspiring photographs. Transits helped 18th-century astronomers more accurately measure the distance between the Earth and the sun, and to other planets in our solar system.

Scientists aim to study the atmospheres of Venus and other planets to better understand changes in the Earth’s atmosphere.

In the UAE, the event was also helpful in dispel ling misconceptions and educating the public.

Hasan Al Hariri, the Emirati chief executive of the Dubai Astronomy Group, has had phone calls from people worried about whether the transit could harm their health. He said he fielded similar questions during eclipses.

“People asked, ‘what should we do? What should we not do? My wife is pregnant. Will if affect her?’” Mr Al Hariri said.

“It was a good chance to explain that this is about facts and physics and will not affect their life.

“In this region these events are sometimes viewed very negatively, so it’s important to educate people and show them this is not dangerous, it’s science.”

Although the transit was not harmful to health, looking directly at the sun can damage the eyes.

“No one should stare directly into the sun under any circumstance,” said Dr Chris Canning, a consultant vitreoretinal surgeon and medical director at Moorfields Eye Hospital Dubai. “Any amount of exposure to the sun’s bright light is harmful.”

The eye specialist often has patients visit him with eye damage after a solar eclipse but said he did not receive any patients from yesterday’s Venus sighting.

In events where there is an eclipse or sighting, Dr Canning recommends using properly filtered telescopes, adding some specially designed glasses are also safe.

At AUS yesterday, groups held animated discussions about the phenomenon as they read posters placed in the plaza.

Dr Nidhal Guessoum, the university’s interim head of physics, said practical knowledge was crucial.

“Our number one objective is education so the general public understands there is no need to fear nature,” Dr  Guessoum said.

“We also want students to realise that you don’t need a big observatory, but science can unfold in front of you. This is like an open laboratory so students can observe.”


* With additional reporting by Manal Ismail


For those who missed it, Nasa's live webcast is available on http://venustransit.nasa.gov/transitofvenus/

The Slooh Space Camera will also broadcast live feeds at http://events.slooh.com from multiple telescopes located around the world.