Transit of Venus is a noteworthy event even today

On Tuesday, the planet Venus will travel across the face of the sun, as viewed from Earth. I wanted local readers in Western Washington to enjoy and appreciate this rare event, which won’t occur for another 105 years.

As I began to dig deeply into the so-called “transit of Venus,” I became fascinated by the history and science of the event, which goes back to the 1600s. As promised earlier today, here’s the link to the story that was published online tonight.

What I did not expect to find were the numerous links to water. In centuries past, explorers set out in sailing vessels to take measurements of the transit time to help determine the size of the solar system.

Today, researchers are using the transit effect by looking at other stars as they search for solar systems that contain distant planets. One goal is to determine which of the newly discovered “exoplanets” might support life.

Here’s what I wrote in my story about Venus, scheduled to appear in Monday’s Kitsap Sun:

“While the transit of Venus has become more of a historical than scientific interest, astronomers have discovered planets orbiting other stars using a similar method. The technique is based on an understanding of how a star’s brightness dims for Earth observers as a newly discovered planet blocks a small portion of the light.

“The challenge posed by NASA’s Kepler Mission is to identify habitable planets of the right temperature — not too hot and not too cold, the so-called Goldilocks zone. They are especially focused on those likely to contain liquid water, essential for life on Earth.”

The video “Kepler Transits” explains how NASA is discovering planets in other solar systems and measuring the distance to their star. The orbital period is determined by how often the star’s light dims as the object passes in front of the star as viewed from Earth, according to William Borucki, principal scientist for the Kepler Mission:

“We’re looking for orbital periods close to that of the Earth, a few months to about a year, so that we know the planet is the right distance to the star to have water, possibly on its surface…. Because if you have liquid water, we imagine that it is quite possible that you might be able to develop life.”

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