Morning star-gazers track Venus's place in the Sun

A A A

Thousands of Britons woke up yesterday morning to find the Sun was shining down on them in a manner not previously seen by any living person.

Thousands of Britons woke up yesterday morning to find the Sun was shining down on them in a manner not previously seen by any living person.

For those with the necessary viewing equipment - or access to the internet - a small black blob could be seen making its stately progress across the face of the Sun between 6.19am and 12.23pm. The blob was Venus and it is the first time since 1882 that anyone has been able to witness its solar "transit" as it passed directly between the Earth and the Sun. Yesterday's astronomical event was even rarer than the partial transit that occurred 122 years ago. This time the entire transit of Venus from one side of the Sun to the other could be witnessed from Britain during daytime.

The last time this happened was in 1283, although nobody at the time was in a position to know about it as neither the telescope nor the mathematics of planetary motion had been developed.

For once, Britain was blessed with a near-cloudless sky which brought thousands of people of all ages to places with the equipment to display Venus in the best possible light.

Crowds began to form early in the morning at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, the spiritual home of British star gazing where the former Astronomer Royal Edmond Halley had reasoned that the transit of Venus could be used to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun, and hence the size of the solar system.

His prediction, in 1677, of Venus transits in 1761 and 1769 caused a competitive scramble between England and France and led to the famous expedition to Tahiti of Captain Cook, who went on to discover Australia on his way home.

Jim O'Donnell, one of the professional astronomers on hand at Greenwich to explain yesterday's event to the public, said that the day could not have gone better.

"This has been a very exciting occasion. It's one thing to see events like this in pictures or on TV but quite another to look through a telescope and view it with your own eyes," Dr O'Donnell said.

Hundreds also gathered at the small village of Much Hoole in Lancashire where in 1639 a brilliant young man called Jeremiah Horrocks became the first person to both predict and witness a transit of Venus.

Horrocks, a 20-year-old amateur astronomer, had looked at the earlier calculations of the astronomer Johannes Kepler and spotted something about the movement of the planets that he had missed.

Horrocks realised that there was about to be a transit in a matter of weeks and wrote to William Crabtree, a cloth maker friend in Salford: "I beseech you with all thy strength to attend diligently with a telescope."

Horrocks died just two years later but Allan Chapman, a historian of science at Oxford University, says he deserves to be recognised as the true father of British astronomy.

"Horrocks got it dead right. He predicted the transit. He then went on with Crabtree to draw a number of fundamental facts about the nature of the solar system which would today be classed as Nobel prize-winning discoveries," he said.

Yesterday, Horrocks enthusiasts set up viewing equipment in the gardens of the three-storey Jacobean house where he carried out his historic observation from a first-floor bedroom with a telescope costing half a crown.

Riddhi Gupta, 16, was one of three New Zealand students who won an astronomy competition to visit the place where Horrocks carried out his work. "Today has been absolutely fantastic. It was a bit surreal to be stood here and think this is the spot where Jeremiah Horrocks was when he saw the transit all those years ago," she said.

At the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey, children were told how the event could help identify Earth-sized planets orbiting distant stars, said an astronomer, Andrew Coates.

By measuring the precise drop in the intensity of light coming from the Sun as a result the transit of Venus, scientists hope to get a better understanding of how similar-sized extrasolar planets may cause a similar drop in light intensity coming from a distant sun.

Unfortunately, some of Dr Coates' equipment that had been sent out to Spain because of worries over the British weather malfunctioned. "I wish we'd kept it at home," he said.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Finance Assistant - Automotive

£15500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading Motor Re...

Recruitment Genius: General Maintenance Person - Automotive

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading Motor Re...

Recruitment Genius: Receptionist / Meeter-Greeter - Automotive

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading Motor Re...

Recruitment Genius: Course Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Course Manager is required to join a m...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen