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Venus transit from Greece

From the shore of the Aegean Sea, science journalist Dan Falk recounts our sister planet's transit across the Sun.
Observing the transit of Venus
An observer in Greece images Venus passing in front of the Sun.
Dan Falk
June 14, 2004
I
t's hard to imagine a more spectacular setting: High on the promontory of Cape Sounion, at the southeast tip of the Attica peninsula, stands the Temple of Poseidon, the 5th century B.C. Greek monument that inspired Lord Byron and continues to mesmerise visitors today. The Moon, just past last quarter, hangs in the sky above the blue-green waters of the Aegean. A few fishing boats are moored in the bay, with the island ferries moving silently on the horizon.

Meanwhile, on the grounds of a luxury hotel by the beach, some twenty amateur astronomers anxiously are awaiting Venus's first solar transit of the century. Most are from the United States; a few are proudly wearing the T-shirts of their local astronomy clubs. At least one couple is from Germany. Most are participants in a tour organized by Spears Travel, with guest astronomer Fred Espenak of NASA, but a number of curious hotel guests and locals also have dropped by.

The previous evening had seen substantial clouds, but the morning of the transit dawned without a cloud to be seen — which is, of course, why the group chose this site in the first place. With a clear view more or less guaranteed, the question wasn't "will we see it" but rather how it would look compared to those old photographs from 1882, or compared to transits of Mercury that several in the group had seen.
The Temple of Poseidon
Built in the 5th century B.C., the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion was as a tribute to the god of the sea and served as a sign of calm waters for approaching sailors.
Dan Falk
At just after 20 minutes past 8 A.M. — right on schedule — Venus made its first appearance. Those with larger instruments were the first to call out "first contact," and one by one came the reports of "I have it" or "there it is," with scattered yelps of delight going up from the group. (Equipped with only a 500mm telephoto lens, I saw Venus a minute or two later.) As the black dot inched its way onto the Sun's disk, the excitement grew. Seeing our sister planet in its entirety, fully encircled by the Sun, seemed to be the "moment of truth."

Several minutes later, Venus was clearly visible using only a #14 welder's glass.

"You see pictures of what it's supposed to look like, but then to actually see it — it's totally different," said a woman from Chicago. "It's like seeing the Parthenon for the first time. It's awesome." The view was "fine, very fine," the man from Germany said, with a very satisfied look on his face.
Transit of Venus as seen from Greece
This image of the transit was captured by placing a digital camera to the eyepiece of a scope.
Dan Falk
The "roundness" of the two bodies was striking — I knew they would be perfectly round, of course, but words can hardly describe the emotional response to seeing these two perfect circles performing their cosmic dance "live."

I don't know how my 500mm photos will turn out, but just pointing my digital camera into a telescope eyepiece — those with telescopes were more than willing to share, given the leisurely pace of the event — I came away with some dramatic (and surprisingly sharp) images.

The transit, the temple, the sea — it was a day no one here would forget.


Dan Falk is a science journalist based in Toronto.
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