Unless you’ve been living under a rock (not standing on it, as the rest of us are), you know that a rare astronomical event is drawing near.
On June 5-6, Venus will pass in front of the sun. It’s called the Venus transit, and it happens only once or twice in a lifetime.
The last transit was in 2004, but folks in Oklahoma couldn’t see it. If you miss this week’s transit, you won’t have a chance to see another. Venus and Earth won’t line up for a transit again until Dec. 10-11, 2117.
The transits generally occur on a 243-year pattern: For 105.5 years, Earth won’t see any transits. Then it will witness two transits over eight years, followed by a 121.5-year dry spell and two transits over the next eight years. Then it repeats: 105.5 years, 8 years, 121.5 years, 8 years. That pattern will continue until the year 2846.
What will you see? Something really cool but not terribly exciting.
Oklahomans, as staff writer Adam Kemp reported last week, should be able to witness about 2.5 hours of the celestial alignment. We’ll see the beginning of the transit and a good chunk of Venus’ passage across the face of the sun. Once night falls, Oklahoma’s view will end.
Over those 2.5 hours, we’ll see a small black dot appear on the sun and slowly move across it. That’s all. A black dot.
Won’t seem like much unless you think about what you’re seeing. That’s a planet, one of Earth’s siblings, that we’ll be able to see without a telescope. Over the course of centuries, our ancestors watched similar transits and divined meaning from them, even though they didn’t realize what exactly they were seeing. Nearly four centuries ago, astronomers used the transits to triangulate the distance between the Earth and the sun, giving them a way to measure the size of our solar system. Human ingenuity operating on a cosmic scale.
I hope humanity will see the transit as I do: a reminder of how vast is the universe and how petty our problems and prejudices. We’re all in this together, those of us on this rocky Earth, this bright blue marble — all together, spinning through space, lonely but amazing. Long after we’re gone, our children and our children’s children will look to the sky and see the same reminder. We are but a moment on this Earth, but space goes on and on.