Wednesday, June 06, 2012

U is for universe

I’d originally planned another word for the letter “U”, but then something happened: The Transit of Venus, the last one for 105 years. I doubt I’ll still be here for the next one (though never say never, right?). I just couldn’t stay away.

The Transit is among the rarest of predictable astronomical events. By observing it, humans learned a lot about universe, starting with the size of our solar system, as well as the distance from the earth to the sun. It has also helped scientists to understand what to look for in distant stars to see if they may have planets orbiting them. So, the Transit has been a very big deal.

The photo of the Transit of Venus, above, was taken by NASA (Venus is that black dot). The agency describes the image as “SDO's Ultra-high Definition View of 2012 Venus Transit - 304 Angstrom”. I understood some of those words.

And that’s the thing about astronomy: You don’t really have to understand the science to be excited by it. As a kid, I watched the space launches of Project Gemini and Project Apollo (I still think I remember a Project Mercury launch, but I kind of doubt I actually do), as well as the space shuttle launches. As a kid, I had a toy Project Gemini rocket, and later built a model of an Apollo rocket, which had a separate model of the lunar lander and orbiting command module.

I also remember the disasters of Apollo 1, the near disaster of Apollo 13, as well as the shuttle disasters of Challenger and Columbia.

But I also remember the triumphs, none bigger than the moon landing on July 20, 1969, which my family watched live on our black and white television. Those images of distant planets sent back to earth from deep space probes were also breathtaking.

However, much as I wanted to, I couldn’t watch the Transit personally—I didn’t have the equipment to watch it safely, nor the time, really, but even if I did, it was cloudy a lot of the day. So instead, I watched it over the Internet, NASA livestreaming from the top of Mount Mauna Kea in Hawaii. This seemed appropriate on so many levels.

My long history of watching NASA broadcasts made watching this through NASA logical, as did watching it over the Internet using my home computer—technology that owes everything to the space programme. I’m sitting in New Zealand, which Captain Cook sailed to as part of an expedition to view the Transit of Venus in 1769 (his actual purpose was supposedly to claim these islands and Australia for England). He met his doom in Hawaii. So, there are numerous connections.

The Transit of Venus is but one small event in this enormous universe of ours. We don’t know how big it is, but it’s at least 10 billion light years in diameter, and it’s at least 13 billion years old. Despite that immense size and immense age, there’s still so much to learn about it. Maybe somewhere some kid watched the Transit, was awed by it, and will now grow up to make all sorts of new discoveries. I just hope I’m around long enough to gush about some of them, too.

Below is a screenshot of what I saw on the live NASA broadcast, near the end of the transit:

Nearly all NASA images are available for use, as long as doing so doesn’t imply endorsement by NASA. Their conditions of use are available online. Oh, and that photo at the top of this post? It's now my desktop photo.

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Roger Owen Green said...

I'm not sure I could have seen it, but I decided that NASA site was the way to go!
ROG, ABC Wednesday team

Gattina said...

Impossible to see it from Belgium the sky is full of rain clouds !
ABC Team

luluberoo said...

These NASA pictures are amazing. I missed it all in Michigan, USA, but am feeling joyful and upbeat. Perhaps Venus is transiting my house of happiness ...;)

Lmkazmierczak said...

An Uber great blog♫♪

Dyanna said...

You can use again next week when V is for Venus! I enjoyed your post.

Black Jack's Carol said...

We were away and somehow, I missed this was happening. I learned about it the next day and was so sorry to have missed it. Thank you so much for a wonderful post. I share many of your thoughts about not having to understand the science to be excited about astronomy.

Mel C. said...

unique post you have here. and what beauty does planet Venus has offered in our Universe? :) hope you can visit my ABC Wednesday here.