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?
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor