What the transit of Venus tells us about alien planets (+video)
The transit of Venus will help astronomers on the hunt for planets outside of our solar system.
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And the science being planned for the upcoming Venus transit is a step ahead of research done during the 2004 Venus transit, as instrumentation and research goals have advanced, said Matt Penn, lead scientist at the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope at Kitt Peak observatory in Arizona. [2012 Venus Transit Observer's Guide (Infographic)]Skip to next paragraph
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Much of the research during the past Venus transit focused on using spectroscopy — a technique to divide light into its constituent wavelengths — while looking for polarized light will be the thrust of many researchers' aims this time around, he said.
"The opportunity to read what other people did in 2004 and to build on their work is a unique opportunity," Penn told SPACE.com. "We're hoping that one of the experiments will allow us to detect polarization through Venus' atmosphere."
Venus ties to alien planets
The upcoming transit will be used not just to study the architecture of our own solar system, but that of others as well.
"Astronomers in the 18th and 19th centuries observed transits of Mercury and Venus to help measure the distance from Earth to sun," said Frank Hill, director of the National Solar Observatory’s Integrated Synoptic Program. "We have that number nailed down now, but transits are still useful. This one will help us calibrate in several different instruments, and hunt for extrasolar planets with atmospheres."
The transits of alien planets in front of their stars, from the point of view of Earth, are one of the key ways scientists discover such planets' existence. As planets pass in front of their stars, they briefly dim the stars' light, signaling their presence.
And just as with Mercury and Venus, the filtering of stars' light through planets' atmospheres can reveal clues regarding the presence and composition of gaseous atmospheres around these distant worlds.
Since scientists know quite a lot about Venus' atmosphere by now, they can use observations of its transit to calibrate their instruments and set a benchmark for studying the atmospheres of new planets beyond the solar system.
You can follow SPACE.com assistant managing editor Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcomand on Facebook.
- Transit of Venus 2012: An Observer's Guide (Gallery)
- The Transit of Venus: Complete Coverage
- Past Venus Transits Revealed Solar System’s Size | Video Part 2
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