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Transit of Venus offers rare opportunity to mock astronomers (+video)

In the past, the transit of Venus has been used as an occasion to poke fun at globetrotting scientists, who used the rare astronomical event to make measurements of our solar system. 

By Andrea MustainOurAmazingPlanet Staff Writer / June 4, 2012

The last transit of Venus happened in 2004, as captured in this satellite image.

NASA

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When Venus passes between the Earth and the sun on June 5, one group of scientists will be kicking it old school. Very old school. They'll be watching the spectacle unfold using specialized telescopes from distant places around the world for a project that echoes the global reach of the 18th-century expeditions that sent scientists to far-flung spots to observe the celestial event.

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Venus will slide between the Sun and Earth next week, the last such transit for 117 years. Andrew Raven reports.

Researchers with the Venus Twilight Experiment have set up coronagraphs — telescopes that block out direct sunlight, allowing an observer to pick out Venus from the sun's searing glare — in the Arctic, Arizona, Australia, California, Hawaii, India, Japan, Kazakhstan and the South Pacific.

In 1761 and 1769, European nations sent explorers sailing around the world to observe transits of Venus from a wide variety of spots in the hopes of figuring out some key information about the solar system.

Scientists of the day knew it was possible to use two points on the Earth and Venus itself like points on a giant, celestial protractor. Looking at the triangles formed by the three points would help reveal the distance between the Earth and the sun, and other large-scale distances.

James Cook observed the transit from Tahiti in 1769. Eight years earlier, for the 1761 transit, 176 scientists watched the event from 117 spots around the globe.

In 2012, the traveling scientists are seeking more subtle information. They're trying to flesh out some details about Venus's atmosphere. [Video: Last Venus Transit In Your Lifetime]

The data they gather will be studied together with observations made at Venus itself with the European Space Agency's Venus Express spacecraft.

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