A young boy uses a pair of binoculars with special filters, to observe the transit of Venus at the National Science Museum in Gwacheon, south of Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, June 6, 2012. It's important to remember to NEVER look at the sun through binoculars unless they have special lenses attached. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
Filtering the sun’s light to a minuscule fraction of its true power allowed sky-gazers around the world to watch a silhouetted Venus travel across Earth’s closest star, an extremely rare spectacle that served as a reminder of how tiny our planet really is.
After all, the next transit is 105 years away — likely beyond all of our lifetimes but just another dinky speck in the timeline of the universe.
“I’m sad to see Venus go,” electrical engineer Andrew Cooper of the W.M. Keck Observatory told viewers watching a webcast of the transit’s final moments as seen from the nearly 14,000-foot summit of Mauna Kea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island.
From Maui to Mumbai, Mexico to Norway, much of the world watched the 6-hour, 40-minute celestial showcase through special telescopes, live streams on the Internet or with the naked eye through cheap cardboard glasses.
“If you can see the mole on Cindy Crawford’s face, you can see Venus,” Van Webster, a member of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society, told those who stopped by his telescope for a peek on Mount Hollywood.
For astronomers, the transit wasn’t just a rare planetary spectacle. It was also one of those events they hoped would spark curiosity about the universe and our place in it.
Sul Ah Chim, a researcher in South Korea, said he hoped people see life from a larger perspective and “not get caught up in their small, everyday problems.”
“When you think about it from the context of the universe, 105 years is a very short period of time and the Earth is only a small, pale blue spot,” he said.
The transit began just after 6 p.m. EDT in the United States. What observers could see and for how long depended on their region’s exposure to the sun during that exact window of time, and the weather.
Looking up: Those in most areas of North and Central America saw the start of the transit until sunset, while those in western Asia, the eastern half of Africa and most of Europe could catch the transit’s end once the sun came up.
Hawaii, Alaska, eastern Australia and eastern Asia, including Japan, North and South Korea and eastern China, get the whole show since the entire transit happens during daylight in those regions.
While astronomers used the latest technology to document the transit, American astronaut Don Pettit aboard the International Space Station was planning to take photos of the event and post them online.
Online streams with footage from telescopes around the world proved popular for NASA and other observatories. A NASA stream midway through the transit had nearly 2 million total views and was getting roughly 90,000 viewers at any given moment.
Vision warnings: Meanwhile, terrestrial stargazers were warned to only look at the celestial event with a properly filtered telescope or cardboard eclipse glasses. If the sun is viewed directly, permanent eye damage could result.
Roy Gal, an assistant astronomer at the University of Hawaii, told those viewing the transit at Waikiki Beach on Oahu that the telescopes were filtered to block all but 1/100th of 1 percent of the sun’s light, plus all its infrared rays to keep the instruments from overheating.
“What we need to do is block out most of the light from the sun so that we don’t go blind and we don’t melt things,” Gal said in an interview.
Telescopes with special filters were set up next to the lawn and people took turns peering at the sun before and during the transit. Astronomers and volunteers lectured about the rarity of a Venus pass to anyone who would listen.
Song: Minutes before Venus first touched the outer edge of the sun, they blared Sousa’s “Transit Of Venus March.” The crowd turned their attention skyward.
Jamie Jetton took the day off from work to bring her two nephews, 6 and 11, visiting from Arizona, to the observatory. Sporting eclipse glasses, it took a little while before they spotted Venus.
“I’m still having fun. It’s an experience. It’s something we’ll talk about for the rest of our lives,” she said.
Bo Tan, a 32-year-old software engineer took a half day off from work and went with his co-workers to the observatory. He admitted he wasn’t an astronomy buff but could not miss this opportunity.
He pointed his eclipse glasses at the sun and steadied his Nikon camera behind it to snap pictures.
“It makes you feel like a small speck in the universe,” he said.
Clouds obscured the view in Tokyo, but students and other viewers under clearer skies in southern and western Japan were seen on TV using dark lenses to gaze at the sun. One child remarked that it looked as if the “sun had a mole on its face.”
In Mexico, at least 100 people lined up two hours early to view the event through telescopes or one of the 150 special viewing glasses on hand, officials said. Observation points were also set up at a dozen locations.
The planet: Venus, which is extremely hot, is one of Earth’s two neighbors and is so close in size to our planet that scientists at times call them near-twins. During the transit, it will appear as a small dot.
It was the seventh transit visible since German astronomer Johannes Kepler first predicted the phenomenon in the 17th century. Because of the shape and speed of Venus’ orbit around the sun and its relationship to Earth’s annual trip, transits occur in pairs separated by more than a century.
It’s nowhere near as dramatic and awe-inspiring as a total solar eclipse, which sweeps a shadow across the Earth, but there will be six more of those this decade.
One view: Some observers at the University of Alaska, Anchorage gathered on a campus rooftop, peering at Venus through special filtered glasses and telescopes.
“It’s not really spectacular when you’re looking at it,” Kellen Tyrrell, 13, said. “It’s just the fact that I’m here seeing it. It’s just so cool that I get to experience it.”
Staring at the sun: Most people don’t tend to gaze at the sun for long periods of time because it’s painful and people instinctively look away. But there’s the temptation to stare at it during sky shows like solar eclipses or transits of Venus.
The eye has a lens and if you stare at the sun, it concentrates sunlight on the retina and can burn a hole through it. It’s similar to when you hold a magnifying glass under the blazing sun and light a piece of paper on fire.
It can take several hours for people to notice problems with their eyes but, by that time, the damage is done and, in some cases, irreversible.
During the 1970 solar eclipse visible from the eastern U.S., 145 burns of the retina were reported, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Planet Venus, pictured as a black dot, left, is seen in transit across the sun near the Victory Tower in Chittorgarh, India, Wednesday, June 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Atish Aman)
Reported by OSKAR GARCIA of the Associated Press from HONOLULU, Hawaii.
He can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/oskargarciaContributing to this report are AP Science Writer Alicia Chang in Los Angeles; and Associated Press writers Rachel D’Oro in Anchorage, Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Hye Soo Nah in Seoul, Nasr ul Hadi in New Delhi and Noel Waghorn in Takoma Park, Md.