Sunday, June 6, 2004

Area astronomy buffs are gearing up for tomorrow’s Venus transit across the sun as though it were the Super Bowl of the natural world.

As amateur stargazers polish their telescopes in preparation for the rare celestial sight, some local hobbyists are holding public viewings in shopping mall parking lots and local parks.

“If the Triple Crown happened once every 100 years, that would be comparable to our excitement,” said Greg Piepol, 40, an amateur stargazer in Rockville.

“It’s like having the Olympics after a century-long break,” said Robert C. McKinney, 46, an astronomy buff from Arlington. “Everything else happening this year is a pennant race at best.”

For the first time since 1882, Venus will pass between the Earth and sun tomorrow morning, an event known to astronomers as a “Venus transit.”

Beginning at dawn, area astronomers and hobbyists will be able to view the phenomenon through their telescopes for about 90 minutes. Venus most likely will look like a small dot traveling across the face of the sun.

“It probably won’t be visible to the naked eye,” said Mr. McKinney, who is president of the 800-member Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. “You can put on special glasses and give it a shot, but a telescope is the way to go.”

Clouds might obscure the sight, however. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for partly cloudy skies.

The transit will last longer in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere and will be visible for its full six hours only in areas such as the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Venus will be three-quarters through its crossing by the time the sun rises over the East Coast.

“The best place to be is in the Middle East,” Mr. Piepol said. “The troops in Iraq could get a great look if viewing areas are set up for them.”

Most local professional astronomers already have left the region for spots such as Greece. Others are headed as far north as Nova Scotia to get a better vantage point.

Meanwhile, amateur stargazers have spent weeks staking out grassy areas with good views of the horizon.

The astronomy buffs will use heavily filtered lenses and a low magnification to view the event, and they recommend that first-timers avoid trying to set up a telescope by themselves.

“You can go blind,” Mr. McKinney said. “The quickest way to lose your sight is to stare at the sun for an hour. Even the moon is painfully bright, if you’re looking at it at night.”

The Analemma Society in Great Falls and the University of Maryland at College Park will hold public viewings tomorrow morning.

The Observatory Park at Turner Farm in Great Falls will be open for a public viewing for enthusiasts. Volunteers will provide telescopes with appropriate solar filters and information about the event.

“Some astronomy clubs are holding public viewings in mall parking lots, sort of like a tailgate party,” Mr. McKinney said.

Ed Seward, 49, an amateur stargazer from Woodbridge, scheduled to take the day off from work tomorrow about six months ago just so he can witness the sight. Mr. Seward said he is organizing a gathering of 12 persons at C.M. Crockett Park in Fauquier County, Va., which is about an hour away from his home.

“This is bigger than Mark McGuire breaking the home-run record,” said the network engineer with the U.S. Army. “I’ll be getting up at 1 a.m.”

Venus passes between Earth and the sun about once every 19 months, but the two planets’ orbits are only in perfect alignment on two occasions eight years apart every century or so.

The next transit will take place in 2012, followed by another 100-year break.

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