The spectacular sun-related astronomical events of this year, combined with modern viewing technology that shields the eyes, caused some to cast aside their reservations and observe the annular solar eclipse of May. The transit of Venus has captivated the world of astronomy and beyond, including many traditional Navajos, who along with other non-Native and non-traditional people, will view this celestial happening at the Navajo National Monument.
The park is but one of many venues hosting a transit of Venus viewing party around the U.S. The transit happens for six to seven hours as Venus crosses the face of the sun in its version of a solar eclipse. Due to its distanced from Earth, however, it appears as a small black dot rather than a disk obscuring the sun. The transit begins at 6:06 p.m. on the East Coast of Turtle Island, 3:06 p.m. on the West Coast, and lasts past sunset.
Venus transits just once every 120 years and has only been seen in 1631, 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874 and 1882, according to NASA. The last one happened in 2004 (they are paired), but in the western U.S. it occurred before sunrise, so was not visible there.
“At Navajo National Monument we are planning on having a Venus transit presentation and also a viewing, and hopefully we can get more people up there with their telescopes,” said Melba Martin, a Navajo educator and amateur archeoastronomer who works closely with NASA. She gave an indoor presentation during the annular solar eclipse on May 20 to which only five people showed up—everyone else either viewed it outright, including some traditional Navajo, or stayed inside with shades drawn, observing silence and inactivity in reverence to the taboo.
“I believe in some parts of the nation some people will be allowed to look at the sun and see Venus transit, and in other parts of the nation probably the medicine men would advise not to do so,” Martin said.
For the eclipse, many traditional Navajos decided to watch, while younger people observed the taboo. The Venus transit of 2012 is different, Martin said.
“As far as I know, from the medicine men I talked to, it’s okay to look at the Venus transit. There is nothing of a negative connotation to this particular viewing, but that may not hold true throughout the rest of the Navajo Nation,” said Martin. “Before, the taboo was because of the intimacy of the sun and the moon together.”
Viewing parties are being held everywhere, and the event has captured the world’s imagination, given that, according to NASA, it is only the eighth time the transit has been witnessed since the invention of the telescope. Moreover, when the first set of this pair of transits occurred, in 2004, it happened before sunrise, so the western U.S. did not get a glimpse.
The transit of Venus can also be viewed at Alligator Mound, a sculpted hill in Newark, Ohio, that aligns with the central axis of the nearby Newark Earthworks, a 2,000-year-old set of mounds and gigantic walled enclosures with lunar alignments. (The shape molded into Alligator Mound’s summit by ancient astronomers was once thought to portray that animal, though the idea has been challenged.) Community historian and Ohio Archaeological Council member Jeff Gill will be atop the mound to guide viewers as Venus passes across the surface of the sun. To observe safely, you must bring eclipse glasses, Gill says.
Though Venus is bright in the Northern Hemisphere, we do not know whether the earthworks builders tracked its transit or not, according to Denison University astronomy professor Michael Mickelson. Nevertheless, said Gill, using the mound to view this celestial event gives us the opportunity to live more mindfully, as the ancients would have done.
“Creating connectedness with the heavens is healthy for us and for the earth,” said Gill. Find out more about the earthworks at http://newark.osu.edu; scroll down and click on “Newark Earthworks Center.”
Viewing parties are also being held in Las Vegas (according to KTNV), Denver, Los Angeles and Oregon, the latter at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), as well as at the Montana State University.
Those who can’t make it to a spot can see it online, in real time, broadcast by the Slooh Space Camera, and NASA will broadcast the transit in real time from Mauna Kea, Hawaii. San Francisco’s Exploratorium will broadcast it online from Mauna Loa, Hawaii. More live webcast information is available at NASA’s Sun-Earth Day website.