A transit of
Venus across the
Sun takes place when the planet Venus
passes directly between the
Sun and a superior planet, becoming
visible against (and hence obscuring a small portion of) the solar
disk. During a transit,
Venus can be seen from Earth as a small black
disk moving across the face of the Sun. The duration of such transits
is usually several hours (the transit of 2012 lasted 6 hours and 40
minutes). A transit is similar to a solar eclipse by the Moon. While
the diameter of
Venus is more than three times that of the Moon, Venus
appears smaller, and travels more slowly across the face of the Sun,
because it is much farther away from Earth.
Venus are among the rarest of predictable astronomical
phenomena. They occur in a pattern that generally repeats every 243
years, with pairs of transits eight years apart separated by long gaps
of 121.5 years and 105.5 years. The periodicity is a reflection of the
fact that the orbital periods of Earth and
Venus are close to 8:13 and
The last transit of
Venus was on 5 and 6 June 2012, and was the last
Venus transit of the 21st century; the prior transit took place on 8
June 2004. The previous pair of transits were in December 1874 and
December 1882. The next transits of
Venus will take place on 10–11
December 2117, and 8 December 2125.
Venus transits are historically of great scientific importance as they
were used to gain the first realistic estimates of the size of the
Solar System. Observations of the 1639 transit, combined with the
principle of parallax, provided an estimate of the distance between
Sun and the Earth that was more accurate than any other up to that
time. The 2012 transit provided scientists with a number of other
research opportunities, particularly in the refinement of techniques
to be used in the search for exoplanets.
2 History of observation
2.1 Ancient and medieval history
2.2 1639 – first scientific observation
2.3 1761 and 1769
2.4 1874 and 1882
2.5 2004 and 2012
3 Past and future transits
4 Grazing and simultaneous transits
5 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
Diagram of transits of
Venus and the angle between the orbital planes
Venus and Earth
Venus, with an orbit inclined by 3.4° relative to the Earth's,
usually appears to pass under (or over) the
Sun at inferior
conjunction. A transit occurs when
Venus reaches conjunction with
Sun at or near one of its nodes—the longitude where
through the Earth's orbital plane (the ecliptic)—and appears to pass
directly across the Sun. Although the inclination between these two
orbital planes is only 3.4°,
Venus can be as far as 9.6° from the
Sun when viewed from the Earth at inferior conjunction. Since the
angular diameter of the
Sun is about half a degree,
Venus may appear
to pass above or below the
Sun by more than 18 solar diameters during
an ordinary conjunction.
Sequences of transits usually repeat every 243 years. After this
period of time
Venus and Earth have returned to very nearly the same
point in their respective orbits. During the Earth's 243 sidereal
orbital periods, which total 88,757.3 days,
Venus completes 395
sidereal orbital periods of 224.701 days each, equal to 88,756.9 Earth
days. This period of time corresponds to 152 synodic periods of
The pattern of 105.5, 8, 121.5 and 8 years is not the only pattern
that is possible within the 243-year cycle, because of the slight
mismatch between the times when the Earth and
Venus arrive at the
point of conjunction. Prior to 1518, the pattern of transits was 8,
113.5 and 121.5 years, and the eight inter-transit gaps before the AD
546 transit were 121.5 years apart. The current pattern will continue
until 2846, when it will be replaced by a pattern of 105.5, 129.5 and
8 years. Thus, the 243-year cycle is relatively stable, but the number
of transits and their timing within the cycle will vary over
time. Since the 243:395 Earth:
Venus commensurability is only
approximate, there are different sequences of transits occurring 243
years apart, each extending for several thousand years, which are
eventually replaced by other sequences. For instance, there is a
series which ended in 541 BC, and the series which includes 2117 only
started in AD 1631.
History of observation
Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa", a cuneiform clay tablet of astrological
forecasts from the
Ancient and medieval history
Ancient Indian, Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian and Chinese observers knew
Venus and recorded the planet's motions. The early Greek
Venus by two names—
Hesperus the evening star and
Phosphorus the morning star.
Pythagoras is credited with realizing
they were the same planet. There is no evidence that any of these
cultures knew of the transits.
Venus was important to ancient American
civilizations, in particular for the Maya, who called it Noh Ek, "the
Great Star" or Xux Ek, "the Wasp Star"; they embodied
Venus in the
form of the god
Kukulkán (also known as or related to
Quetzalcoatl in other parts of Mexico). In the Dresden Codex, the Maya
charted Venus's full cycle, but despite their precise knowledge of its
course, there is no mention of a transit. However, it has been
proposed that frescoes found at
Mayapan may contain a pictorial
representation of the 12th or 13th century transits.
The Persian polymath
Avicenna claimed to have observed
Venus as a spot
on the Sun. This is possible, as there was a transit on May 24, 1032,
Avicenna did not give the date of his observation, and modern
scholars have questioned whether he could have observed the transit
from his location at that time; he may have mistaken a sunspot for
Venus. He used his transit observation to help establish that Venus
was, at least sometimes, below the
Sun in Ptolemaic cosmology,
i.e. the sphere of
Venus comes before the sphere of the
moving out from the Earth in the prevailing geocentric model.
1639 – first scientific observation
Jeremiah Horrocks makes the first observation of the transit of Venus
in 1639, as imagined by the artist W. R. Lavender in 1903
Main article: Transit of Venus, 1639
Johannes Kepler became the first person to predict a transit
of Venus, by predicting the 1631 event. His methods were not
sufficiently accurate to predict that the transit would not be visible
in most of Europe, and as a consequence, nobody was able to use his
prediction to observe the phenomenon.
The first recorded observation of a transit of
Venus was made by
Jeremiah Horrocks from his home at
Carr House in Much Hoole, near
Preston in England, on 4 December 1639 (24 November under the Julian
calendar then in use in England). His friend, William Crabtree, also
observed this transit from Broughton, near Manchester. Kepler had
predicted transits in 1631 and 1761 and a near miss in 1639. Horrocks
corrected Kepler's calculation for the orbit of Venus, realized that
Venus would occur in pairs 8 years apart, and so predicted
the transit of 1639. Although he was uncertain of the exact time,
he calculated that the transit was to begin at approximately 15:00.
Horrocks focused the image of the
Sun through a simple telescope onto
a piece of paper, where the image could be safely observed. After
observing for most of the day, he was lucky to see the transit as
clouds obscuring the
Sun cleared at about 15:15, just half an hour
before sunset. Horrocks's observations allowed him to make a
well-informed guess as to the size of Venus, as well as to make an
estimate of the mean distance between the Earth and the Sun —
the astronomical unit. He estimated that distance to be
59.4 million miles (95.6 Gm, 0.639 AU) –
about two thirds of the actual distance of 93 million miles
(149.6 million km), but a more accurate figure than any suggested up
to that time. The observations were not published until 1661, well
after Horrocks's death.
1761 and 1769
Diagram from Edmund Halley's 1716 paper to the
Royal Society showing
Venus transit could be used to calculate the distance between
the Earth and the Sun
Venus transit times to determine solar parallax
Account of George III's observations of the 1769 transit.
Further information: 1769 Transit of
Venus observed from Tahiti
In 1663 Scottish mathematician James Gregory had suggested in his
Optica Promota that observations of a transit of the planet Mercury,
at widely spaced points on the surface of the Earth, could be used to
calculate the solar parallax and hence the astronomical unit using
triangulation. Aware of this, a young
Edmond Halley made observations
of such a transit on 28 October O.S. 1677 from
Saint Helena but was
disappointed to find that only
Richard Towneley in Burnley, Lancashire
had made another accurate observation of the event whilst Gallet, at
Avignon, simply recorded that it had occurred. Halley was not
satisfied that the resulting calculation of the solar parallax at 45"
In a paper published in 1691, and a more refined one in 1716, he
proposed that more accurate calculations could be made using
measurements of a transit of Venus, although the next such event was
not due until 1761. Halley died in 1742, but in 1761 numerous
expeditions were made to various parts of the world so that precise
observations of the transit could be made in order to make the
calculations as described by Halley—an early example of
international scientific collaboration. This collaboration was,
however, underpinned by competition, the British, for example, being
spurred to action only after they heard of French plans from
Joseph-Nicolas Delisle. In an attempt to observe the first transit of
the pair, astronomers from Britain, Austria and France traveled to
destinations around the world, including Siberia, Newfoundland and
Madagascar. Most managed to observe at least part of the transit,
but successful observations were made in particular by Jeremiah Dixon
Charles Mason at the Cape of Good Hope. Less successful, at
Saint Helena, were
Nevil Maskelyne and Robert Waddington, although
they put the voyage to good use by trialling the lunar-distance method
of finding longitude.
Diagrams from Mikhail Lomonosov's "The Appearance of
Venus on the Sun,
Observed at the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences On 26 May
Diagram from David Rittenhouse's observations of the 1769 transit of
The existence of an atmosphere on
Venus was concluded by Mikhail
Lomonosov on the basis of his observation of the transit of
1761 from the Imperial Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg. He
used a two-lens achromat refractor and a weak solar filter (smoked
glass) and reported seeing a bump or bulge of light ("Lomonosov's
arc") off the solar disc as
Venus began to exit the Sun. Lomonosov
attributed that effect to refraction of solar rays through an
atmosphere; he also reported the appearance of a sliver around the
Venus that had just entered the Sun's disk during the initial
phase of transit. In 2012, Pasachoff and Sheehan reported,
based on knowing what Venus's atmosphere would look like because of
Pasachoff and Schneider's observations of the 2004 transit of Venus,
that what Lomonosov reported was not Venus's atmosphere. To make a
decisive test, a group of researchers carried out experimental
reconstruction of Lomonosov's discovery of Venusian atmosphere with
antique refractors during the transit of
Venus on 5–6 June 2012.
They observed the "Lomonosov's arc" and other aureole effects due to
Venus's atmosphere and concluded that Lomonosov's telescope was fully
adequate to the task of detecting the arc of light around
the Sun's disc during ingress or egress if proper experimental
techniques as described by Lomonosov in his 1761 paper are
For the 1769 transit, scientists traveled to Tahiti, Norway, and
locations in North America including Canada, New England, and San
José del Cabo (Baja California, then under Spanish control). The
Czech astronomer Christian Mayer was invited by
Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great to
observe the transit in
Saint Petersburg with Anders Johan Lexell,
while other members of the
Russian Academy of Sciences
Russian Academy of Sciences went to eight
other locations in the Russian Empire, under the general coordination
of Stepan Rumovsky.
George III of the United Kingdom
George III of the United Kingdom had the
King's Observatory built near his summer residence at Richmond Lodge
for him and his royal astronomer
Stephen Demainbray to observe the
transit. The Hungarian astronomer
Maximilian Hell and his
János Sajnovics traveled to Vardø, Norway, delegated by
Christian VII of Denmark. William Wales and Joseph Dymond made their
observation in Hudson Bay, Canada, for the Royal Society. Observations
were made by a number of groups in the British colonies in America. In
American Philosophical Society
American Philosophical Society erected three
temporary observatories and appointed a committee, of which David
Rittenhouse was the head. Observations were made by a group led by Dr.
Benjamin West in Providence, Rhode Island, and published in
1769. The results of the various observations in the American
colonies were printed in the first volume of the American
Philosophical Society's Transactions, published in 1771. Comparing
the North American observations, William Smith published in 1771 a
best value of the solar parallax of 8.48 to 8.49 arc-seconds,
which corresponds to an Earth-
Sun distance of 24,000 times the Earth's
radius, about 3% different from the correct value.
Observations were also made from
James Cook and Charles
Green at a location still known as "Point Venus". This occurred on
the first voyage of James Cook, after which Cook explored New
Zealand and Australia. This was one of five expeditions organised by
Royal Society and the
Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne.
Jean-Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche
Jean-Baptiste Chappe d'Auteroche went to
San José del Cabo
San José del Cabo in what
New Spain to observe the transit with two Spanish astronomers
(Vicente de Doz and Salvador de Medina). For his trouble he died in an
epidemic of yellow fever there shortly after completing his
observations. Only 9 of 28 in the entire party returned home
The "black drop effect" as recorded during the 1769 transit
The 1882 transit of Venus
Guillaume Le Gentil
Guillaume Le Gentil spent eight years travelling in an
attempt to observe either of the transits. His unsuccessful journey
led to him losing his wife and possessions and being declared dead
(his efforts became the basis of the play Transit of
Venus by Maureen
Hunter). Under the influence of the
Royal Society Ruđer
Bošković travelled to Istanbul, but arrived too late.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to time the exact moment of the start
and end of the transit because of the phenomenon known as the "black
drop effect". This effect was long thought to be due to Venus's thick
atmosphere, and initially it was held to be the first real evidence
Venus had an atmosphere. However, recent studies demonstrate that
it is an optical effect caused by the smearing of the image of Venus
by turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere or imperfections in the
In 1771, using the combined 1761 and 1769 transit data, the French
Jérôme Lalande calculated the astronomical unit to have a
value of 153 million kilometers (±1 million km). The precision was
less than had been hoped for because of the black drop effect, but
still a considerable improvement on Horrocks's calculations.
Maximilian Hell published the results of his expedition in 1770, in
Copenhagen. Based on the results of his own expedition, and of
Wales and Cook, in 1772 he presented another calculation of the
astronomical unit: 151.7 million kilometers. Lalande queried
the accuracy and authenticity of the Hell expedition, but later he
retreated in an article of Journal des sçavans, in 1778.
1874 and 1882
Transit of Venus, 1874
Transit of Venus, 1874 and Transit of Venus, 1882
Transit observations in 1874 and 1882 allowed this value to be refined
further. Three expeditions—from Germany, the United Kingdom and the
United States—were sent to the Kerguelen Archipelago for the 1874
observations. The American astronomer
Simon Newcomb combined the
data from the last four transits, and he arrived at a value of about
149.59 million kilometers (±0.31 million kilometers). Modern
techniques, such as the use of radio telemetry from space probes, and
of radar measurements of the distances to planets and asteroids in the
Solar System, have allowed a reasonably accurate value for the
astronomical unit (AU) to be calculated to a precision of about ±30
meters. As a result, the need for parallax calculations has been
2004 and 2012
Transit of Venus, 2004
Transit of Venus, 2004 and Transit of Venus, 2012
Venus from Degania A, Israel, 2004
Solar Dynamics Observatory
Solar Dynamics Observatory Ultra-high Definition View of the 2012
Transit of Venus
This visualization shows the orbital paths of
Venus and Earth that led
to this rare alignment on 5–6 June 2012
A number of scientific organizations headed by the European Southern
Observatory (ESO) organized a network of amateur astronomers and
students to measure Earth's distance from the
Sun during the
transit. The participants' observations allowed a calculation of
the astronomical unit (AU) of 149,608,708 km ± 11,835 km
which had only a 0.007% difference to the accepted value.
There was a good deal of interest in the 2004 transit as scientists
attempted to measure the pattern of light dimming as
Venus blocked out
some of the Sun's light, in order to refine techniques that they hope
to use in searching for extrasolar planets. Current methods of
looking for planets orbiting other stars only work for a few cases:
planets that are very large (Jupiter-like, not Earth-like), whose
gravity is strong enough to wobble the star sufficiently for us to
detect changes in proper motion or
Doppler shift changes in radial
Jupiter or Neptune sized planets very close to their parent
star whose transit causes changes in the luminosity of the star; or
planets which pass in front of background stars with the planet-parent
star separation comparable to the
Einstein ring and cause
gravitational microlensing. Measuring light intensity during the
course of a transit, as the planet blocks out some of the light, is
potentially much more sensitive, and might be used to find smaller
planets. However, extremely precise measurement is needed: for
example, the transit of
Venus causes the amount of light received from
Sun to drop by a fraction of 0.001 (that is, to 99.9% of its
nominal value), and the dimming produced by small extrasolar planets
will be similarly tiny.
The 2012 transit provided scientists numerous research opportunities
as well, in particular in regard to the study of exoplanets. Research
of the 2012
Venus transit includes:
Measuring dips in a star's brightness caused by a known planet
Sun will help astronomers find exoplanets. Unlike the
Venus transit, the 2012 transit occurred during an active phase
of the 11-year activity cycle of the Sun, and it is likely to give
astronomers practice in picking up a planet's signal around a "spotty"
Measurements made of the apparent diameter of
Venus during the
transit, and comparison with its known diameter, will give scientists
an idea of how to estimate exoplanet sizes.
Observation made of the atmosphere of
Venus simultaneously from
Earth-based telescopes and from the
Venus Express gives scientists a
better opportunity to understand the intermediate level of Venus's
atmosphere than is possible from either viewpoint alone. This will
provide new information about the climate of the planet.
Spectrographic data taken of the well-known atmosphere of
be compared to studies of exoplanets whose atmospheres are thus far
The Hubble Space Telescope, which cannot be pointed directly at the
Sun, used the
Moon as a mirror to study the light that had passed
through the atmosphere of
Venus in order to determine its composition.
This will help to show whether a similar technique could be used to
Past and future transits
NASA maintains a catalog of
Venus transits covering the period 2000
BCE to 4000 CE. Currently, transits occur only in June or December
(see table) and the occurrence of these events slowly drifts, becoming
later in the year by about two days every 243-year cycle. Transits
usually occur in pairs, on nearly the same date eight years apart.
This is because the length of eight Earth years is almost the same as
13 years on Venus, so every eight years the planets are in roughly the
same relative positions. This approximate conjunction usually results
in a pair of transits, but it is not precise enough to produce a
Venus arrives 22 hours earlier each time. The last
transit not to be part of a pair was in 1396. The next will be in
3089; in 2854 (the second of the 2846/2854 pair), although
just miss the
Sun as seen from the Earth's equator, a partial transit
will be visible from some parts of the southern hemisphere.
Thus after 243 years the transits of
Venus return. The 1874 transit is
a member of the 243-year cycle #1. The 1882 transit is a member of #2.
The 2004 transit is a member of #3 and the 2012 transit is a member of
#4. The 2117 transit is a member of #1 and so on. However, the
ascending node (December transits) of the orbit of
backwards after each 243 years so the transit of 2854 is the last
member of series #3 instead of series #1. The descending node (June
transits) moves forwards, so the transit of 3705 is the last member of
#2. From −125,000 till +125,000 there are only about ten 243-year
series at both nodes regarding all the transits of
Venus in this very
long time-span, because both nodes of the orbit of
Venus move back and
forward in time as seen from the Earth.
Past transits of Venus
23 November 1396
Last transit not part of a pair
25–26 May 1518
23 May 1526
Last transit before invention of telescope
7 December 1631
Predicted by Kepler
4 December 1639
First transit observed by Horrocks and Crabtree
6 June 1761
Lomonosov, Chappe d'Auteroche and others observe from Russia; Mason
and Dixon observe from the Cape of Good Hope. John Winthrop observes
from St. John's, Newfoundland
3–4 June 1769
Cook sent to
Tahiti to observe the transit, Chappe to San José del
Baja California and
Maximilian Hell to Vardø, Norway.
9 December 1874
Pietro Tacchini leads expedition to Muddapur, India. A French
expedition goes to New Zealand's Campbell Island and a British
expedition travels to Hawaii.
6 December 1882
John Philip Sousa
John Philip Sousa composes a march, the "Transit of Venus", in honor
of the transit.
8 June 2004
Various media networks globally broadcast live video of the Venus
5–6 June 2012
Visible in its entirety from the Pacific and Eastern Asia, with the
beginning of the transit visible from North America and the end
visible from Europe. First transit while a spacecraft orbits Venus.
Future transits of Venus
10–11 December 2117
Visible in entirety in eastern China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia,
and Australia. Partly visible on extreme U.S. West Coast, and in
India, most of Africa, and the Middle East.
8 December 2125
Visible in entirety in South America and the eastern U.S. Partly
visible in Western U.S., Europe, and Africa.
11 June 2247
Visible in entirety in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Partly
visible in East Asia and Indonesia, and in North and South America.
9 June 2255
Visible in entirety in Russia, India, China, and western Australia.
Partly visible in Africa, Europe, and the western U.S.
12–13 December 2360
Visible in entirety in
Australia and most of Indonesia. Partly visible
in Asia, Africa, and the western half of the Americas.
10 December 2368
Visible in entirety in South America, western Africa, and the U.S.
East Coast. Partly visible in Europe, the western U.S., and the Middle
12 June 2490
Visible in entirety through most of the Americas, western Africa, and
Europe. Partly visible in eastern Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
10 June 2498
Visible in entirety through most of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and
eastern Africa. Partly visible in eastern Americas, Indonesia, and
Over longer periods of time, new series of transits will start and old
series will end. Unlike the saros series for lunar eclipses, it is
possible for a transit series to restart after a hiatus. The transit
series also vary much more in length than the saros series.
Grazing and simultaneous transits
Venus only grazes the
Sun during a transit. In this case it
is possible that in some areas of the Earth a full transit can be seen
while in other regions there is only a partial transit (no second or
third contact). The last transit of this type was on 6 December 1631,
and the next such transit will occur on 13 December 2611. It is
also possible that a transit of
Venus can be seen in some parts of the
world as a partial transit, while in others
Venus misses the Sun. Such
a transit last occurred on 19 November 541 BC, and the next transit of
this type will occur on 14 December 2854. These effects occur due
to parallax, since the size of the Earth affords different points of
view with slightly different lines of sight to
Venus and the Sun. It
can be demonstrated by closing an eye and holding a finger in front of
a smaller more distant object; when you open the other eye and close
the first, the finger will no longer be in front of the object.
The simultaneous occurrence of a transit of Mercury and a transit of
Venus does occur, but extremely infrequently. Such an event last
occurred on 22 September 373,173 BC and will next occur on 26 July
69,163, and again on 29 March 224,508. The simultaneous
occurrence of a solar eclipse and a transit of
Venus is currently
possible, but very rare. The next solar eclipse occurring during a
Venus will be on 5 April 15,232. The last time a solar
eclipse occurred during a transit of
Venus was on 1 November 15,607
BC. The day after the Venerean transit of 3 June 1769 there was a
total solar eclipse, which was visible in Northern America, Europe
and Northern Asia.
Solar system portal
Transit of Mercury
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