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Closer to Home

As I write this blog post, the transit of Venus is ongoing, with Venus finishing  its slow march across the face of the Sun in less than an hour. The next time this will event will come around will be well after out life times in December 2117. The internet has been abuzz with these breathtaking images of the transit from all over the world from space telescopes,ground-based telescopes, even iphones strapped to solar eclipse glasses(!). I wanted to share my impressions of the event and how that ties into what we do at Planet Hunters .

For me personally, I wasn’t expecting to see the transit of Venus from New Haven. Yale’s Leitner Family Observatory was planning events, but it was cloudy starting in the morning, and it was predicted to be that way all day. I still packed the eclipse glasses, that I had gotten from the conference in Japan that I was at a few weeks back (the conference ended the day before the annular solar eclipse),  in my bag before heading out this morning. I was hoping but  not holding my breath for there to be a clearing of the clouds later in the afternoon, but it had rained midday. The clouds were thinning a bit in the afternoon, teasing with some small glimpses of the Sun or a brief moment where the sunlight could be seen trying to peak through. I remember on one of my first observing runs, when the weather was bad talking to the lead observer, the older graduate student in my research group. I remember her telling me about sucker holes in clouds, holes in the otherwise thick cloud cover. They happen, but not go to chasing them with your telescope because the can close and move just as fast as they appeared. I was hoping maybe we’d get a clearing in the clouds but it didn’t look like it was going to.

I was already resided to the fact I was going to be watching online on the live streams. I had even lamented to Chris who’s in Norway, in the land of the midnight Sun, for the transit who also had clouds from horizon to horizon for the start of the event. I got on the bus to go home, and noticed what I thought was sunlight on the buildings. I got off a few stops later so I could walk the rest of the way home (or to the observatory  just in case), and low and behold – a sucker hole had opened and there was the Sun struggling but nearly all the way out of the clouds staring back at me right above the astronomy building. I pulled out those eclipse glasses and my own eye glasses (that I rarely wear) and there it was. A bit of cloud still coming over in waves across the Sun’s disk, but there was a black spec on the top right. That was Venus! I made it to the Leitner Observatory where the other postdocs and grad students were, sharing our eclipse glasses to the members of the public who had come to the event and were in line to see through the solar telescopes. We also also got a chance to see the transit through solar telescopes. I captured a neat image from a solar spotter that an amateur astronomer (and also a fellow Planet Hunter) had kindly brought along. As the sun set, the clouds came back  as quickly as they had parted and the sky was covered and grey again. 

View of Venus and the clouds on the Sun’s disk from a sun spotter in New Haven

I have to say it was truly breathtaking and I hope you got to see it yourself and if you didn’t see it outside that you were able to view the transit online. It is amazing to think that that small dark sphere is really a planet moving in front of our Sun.

One of things for me that is so fascinating  is how our view of exoplanets has changed since the last transit of Venus, which occurred in 2004. Kepler hadn’t launched, we didn’t have over 2000 transiting planet candidates (or Planet Hunters 🙂 ) Kepler really has changed how we view the universe around us, with extreme worlds orbiting two stars as well as  the first detection of Earth-sized planets, and the first set of planets orbiting in the habitable zone of their stars (meaning if they were rocky or had rocky moons they might be able to have liquid water pool on their surfaces).

The same way that Venus is blocking out part of the Sun’s light (about 0.1%), is the way we identify planets in the Kepler light curves with Planet Hunters. If aliens in another solar system could watch the Sun today/yesterday, they would see a drop in light of about 0.01% for nearly 7 hours indicating Venus’s presence. We see the drops in the light curves indicative of a planet orbiting their parent stars in the Kepler field. We’ve already found four new planet candidates that weren’t previously identified by the Kepler team but there’s something different in seeing the light curve compared to seeing the Venus transit live. I’ve always known these planet candidates we’re finding are marching across the disks of their parent stars, but seeing the transit of Venus it felt real. I’m heading back to spend the rest of the night  working on my next Planet Hunters paper, thinking about the transits and planetary systems we’re finding and it feels just a bit more familiar…..a little bit closer to home….


PS. Fancy looking for some more transiting planets, come to the Planet Hunters website and give it a try.

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