Jesse Queja, 3, of Waikoloa looks at the transit of Venus with help from his mom, April, at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Waimea Tuesday. (Laura Shimabuku/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Hundreds of people seized their last chance in a lifetime to watch Earth’s sister planet do its slow march across the sun Tuesday in Waimea.
They excitedly waited in lines to peer into the telescopes set up outside of W.M. Keck Observatory Headquarters, stared at the sun while wearing funny paper glasses, and packed an auditorium to watch a live stream of Venus, which looked like a dark speck as it made its passage in front of the sun. The transit began shortly after noon and lasted approximately six hours. The rare astronomical event, dubbed the transit of Venus, sparked wonderment and awe, regardless of age.
“It’s quite amazing when you think about how celestial events like this one can bring all the citizens on the planet together. It’s really unifying because everyone can see the same event, share the same experience and be equally amazed,” Keck astronomer Greg Doppmann said. “Astronomy and these larger-than-life events captivate the wonder in people, sparking imagination and questions about the universe in which we live.”
Keck was one of numerous viewing sites set up islandwide for the public to enjoy the rare event. Venus last crossed the sight line between Earth and the sun in 2004, when those in Hawaii could not view the transit in its entirety. There won’t be another transit until 2117. Paired transits of Venus, separated by eight years, are generally more than a century apart, Doppmann said.
The transit is much more than a mere movement of heavenly bodies; 17th century astronomers used the event to measure the distance between the Earth and the sun and to establish key benchmarks, Doppmann said. Before only the relative distances were known, not the absolute measurements, he added.
Why are we so captivated by our close neighbor? The answer, Doppmann said, could be because Earth and Venus share some striking similarities — the planets are nearly identical in size.
However, the two planets are very different. Venus is a lot hotter and has a thicker atmosphere than Earth, making it one of the most inhospitable places in the solar system, he said.
Observing the Venus transit was one of the reasons Delaware resident Richard Koehler, his wife, Lynn, and their 3-year-old son, Linus, decided to vacation more than two weeks in Hawaii. He witnessed the 2004 transit in Egypt while with a tour group from England. This time he brought a solar scope, a popular and much-appreciated addition at the Keck viewing site.
Koehler said he felt the same wonder and delight watching the transit Tuesday. He also felt like he was following in the footsteps of Capt. James Cook. The explorer was interested in knowing more about the planets in our solar system, a passion that took him to the Pacific in the late 18th century and led to the recording of the 1769 Venus transit.
Waikoloa resident April Queja was only 6 years old when the most famous comet of all time, Halley’s Comet, visited the Earth and she regrets missing it. So when opportunity rose to witness the Venus transit with her children, Queja did not hesitate and went to the Keck viewing site.
“I’m so glad to be here,” she said. “Besides helping them understand the world around them, I just wanted them be a part of this milestone.”
The transit was extra special for Waimea resident Ann Lum because the event landed on her birthday. She made it a point to view the rarity because of the coincidence, as well as her interest in the heavens, stars and astronomical discoveries. While Lum didn’t think the transit would bring her additional luck, she claimed it would score her additional points with her son, who’s working on his doctorate in astronomy.
“It’s wonderful and amazing,” Lum said after looking into the telescope. “A little piece of history.”