Sky Watch

Venus Readies for a Rare Eclipse

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 1, 2004; Page B10

When a little black dot crosses the sun's disk June 8, the world will pause. That pinpoint is the planet Venus, and this will be the first time since 1882 this rarest kind of eclipse has occurred.

To celebrate the event, a new exhibit -- "Chasing Venus: Observing the Transits of Venus, 1631-2004" -- has opened at the Smithsonian Institution's Libraries Exhibition Gallery, inside the National Museum of American History.

There have been only six transits of Venus since 1600. The next one will take place on June 6, 2012.

Venus will cover only a minute fraction of the sun, looking like a dot passing over the solar surface. (Don't look directly at the eclipse, and don't use binoculars or a telescope because you will be permanently blinded.)

The Smithsonian exhibit runs until April 2005.

The first of two lectures takes place April 8, when Wilbur Applebaum of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago will discuss "The First Observation of a Transit of Venus: Jeremiah Horrocks and the New Astronomy," at noon in the Carmichael Auditorium of the National Museum of American History.

Then, on April 22, Richard Fisher of the NASA Office of Space Science also will speak on the Venus transits. His lecture, "Endeavor's Wake: Captain Cook and the Transit of Venus," begins at noon in the Carmichael Auditorium, National Museum of American History.

For more information, go to www.sil.si.edu/exhibitions/upcoming.htm.

Meanwhile, Venus begins April high in the western sky at dusk. You cannot miss it because the effervescent planet, at negative 4.4 magnitude, is the brightest object there. As the sun sets, it is about 30 degrees above the western horizon.

But Venus will get even brighter. By the end of the month, it beams at negative 4.5 magnitude. Throughout April, you will notice that Venus inches closer to the western horizon, moving in the direction of the sun, as the planet prepares for its early June transit of the sun.

Mars moves closer to the western horizon throughout April. The first magnitude planet, bright enough to see from urban skies, currently hangs out in the lower part of the constellation Taurus.

On April 22, the sliver of a new moon dances below the bright Venus and the dim Mars.

Saturn is also in the western sky. In the early evening, find the ringed planet in the west-southwest, at zero magnitude (bright), hanging out in the Gemini constellation. It will remain there throughout April.

The large, gaseous Jupiter will have ascended the east-southeast by evening. Find Jupiter, a very bright, negative second magnitude object, just below the constellation Leo, where it stays in April.

Down-to-Earth Events

April 3: Fred Espenak of NASA discusses the historic crossing at the meeting of the National Capital Astronomers, 7:30 p.m., at the University of Maryland's observatory, College Park. Online at www.capitalastronomers.org.

April 5: Dennis Papadopoulos, an astronomy professor who models the stormy cosmos, examines "Space Weather" at the university's observatory, College Park. For information, call 301-405-6555 or visit www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

April 14: William C. Danchi of NASA discusses extra-solar planetary systems in his lecture, "Astronomer's New 'Microscope on the Sky,' " Einstein Planetarium, National Air and Space Museum, 8 p.m. Free lecture, but advance tickets required. Obtain tickets through the museum's IMAX theater, online via tickets.com or by calling 800-529-2440; a service charge will apply. Tickets also can be reserved by calling 202-633-2398 or at www.lectures@nasm.si.edu.

April 17: Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute provides an all-day seminar, "Is Our Universe Fit for Life?" at the Smithsonian's Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. General admission, $130; members $85. To register, call 202-357-3030 or go to www.smithsonianassociates.org.

April 17: Sean O'Brien of the National Air and Space Museum guides a tour of the night sky at Sky Meadows State Park, near Paris, Va., 7:30 to 11 p.m. Dress warmly. $4 parking fee. For information, call 540-592-3556 or go to www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/skymeado.htm.

April 17: "Exploring the Sky," presented by the National Capital Astronomers and the National Park Service at Rock Creek Park, near the Nature Center, in the field south of Military and Glover roads NW. 8:30 p.m. For information, call 202-895-6070 or go to www.capitalastronomers.org.

April 18: Ian Jordan of Computer Sciences Corp. discusses "The Occulter Project" at the meeting of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. The group will meet in Enterprise Hall (Room 80), George Mason University, Fairfax. 7 p.m. (For parking information, go to www.novac.com.)

April 20: Astronomer Matthew Knight discusses "The History of Comet Observations" at the University of Maryland's observatory, College Park, 8 p.m. For information, call 301-405-6555 or go to www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

April 29: Author Dava Sobel provides insight into one of the world's great astronomers in a talk titled "Galileo's Life and Times" at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1530 P St. NW, starting at 6:45 p.m. For information, call 202-328-6988 or visit www.carnegieinstitution.org.

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at bfriedlander@earthlink.net.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company