Arts, Culture & Media

Observing the Transit of Venus: Past and Present

For our Geo Quiz, we're looking for a spot on Earth named after another planet in our solar system, the second planet from the sun to be precise.

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Here are some clues: The place we want you to name is in the South Pacific. In French Polynesia. On the island of Tahiti. In fact, it's at the northern tip of Tahiti.

The British explorer James Cook famously visited Tahiti on his first voyage around the world. It was 1769, and he came to the place we're looking for to observe a rare astronomical event involving Venus.

What Captain Cook and his crew saw as they peered through their telescopes actually changed our understanding of the solar system.

Can you name this peninsula of black sand that looks out on Tahiti's Matavai Bay?

Astronomers all around the globe are anxiously awaiting the transit of Venus. That's when Venus crosses directly between the Earth and the Sun appearing to us as a tiny, dark spot moving across the solar brightness.

The transit of Venus is a rare astronomical event. The next one won't happen until the year 2117.

Back in 1769, the transit of Venus was more than a curiosity. Scientists were trying to answer a key scientific question: how far away is the sun?

Mark Anderson has written about that quest in a new book called The Day the World Discovered the Sun.

Anderson says the key for scientists back in 1769 was to scatter to different locations around the globe. Each scientific team was assigned to measure how long it took for Venus to cross the sun's face.

Kelly Beatty is one of the many astronomers and journalists who have traveled to Tahiti to watch the transit of Venus. Beatty, editor of Sky and Telescope Magazine, explains how best to watch the phenomenon as it appears across North America.

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