Australians look back to Captain Cook's planetary mission and the discovery of a continent

The spectacle of Venus crossing the Sun had special significance in Australia, discovered by Captain James Cook on his way home from viewing the rare celestial phenomenon in Tahiti in 1769.

The spectacle of Venus crossing the Sun had special significance in Australia, discovered by Captain James Cook on his way home from viewing the rare celestial phenomenon in Tahiti in 1769.

Cook had been dispatched to the South Pacific island with special telescopes to record the transit taking place that year. It was hoped that his observations could be used to answer one of the great scientific questions of the day: the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

While aboard his ship, the Endeavour, Cook opened an envelope to find secret orders from the British admiralty to carry out a second mission: To scour the southern seas for terra australis incognita, the fabled unknown southern land. Scientists believed there must be a huge landmass in the southern hemisphere to balance the large continents in the north.

After leaving Tahiti, Cook sailed to New Zealand and then, in April 1770, reached an anchorage that he named Botany Bay after its lush flora. He discovered Sydney Harbour then charted thousands of miles of Australia's east coast.

Until yesterday, no one alive today in Australia had experienced what Cook saw 235 years ago. Stargazers armed themselves with telescopes, pinhole cameras and special dark glasses to watch the event.

Cook, whose notes about Tahiti are on display at the Sydney Observatory, was blessed with perfect conditions. Yesterday, with the observatory's telescopes focused on the blue skies of the South Pacific, hundreds of people gathered there were rewarded with a clear view as the transit began in mid-afternoon.

One enthusiast, Cathy Rytmeister, queued several times to watch the small dark disc creeping across the face of the Sun. "I'm addicted. I can't stop," she said. Australians were among the first people in the world to glimpse the transit, but they did not catch the entire six-hour, 12-minute show. The sun set about half-way through.

Ms Rytmeister said most Australians had learnt about Venus crossing the Sun in history lessons about Cook's discovery of Australia. "But it was just a phrase," she said. "You didn't know what it meant."

Darren Osborne, a spokesman for the government's scientific agency, said Australia's history could have been different if Cook had not been sent to Tahiti. The transit, he said, was "not as beautiful or exciting as a solar eclipse - but given the historical significance of it ... I think it's a pretty interesting thing to see".

In Sydney, 40 people gathered at the home of Jos Roberts, an amateur astrologer. "I feel very privileged to be alive at the right time, to be in the right place, to have no clouds or monsoons," he said.

As the sun dipped towards the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, stargazers at the observatory savoured one last glance. "To see this great celestial dance happening before your eyes is just so amazing," said Ms Rytmeister.

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