See the Venus Transit

As Skepchick’s token astronomer*, I feel it is my duty to inform you dear readers of all the awesome cosmological things that are happening in the universe. You may have already heard that a very rare, twice in a lifetime event is happening this Tuesday/Wednesday, the transit of Venus across the Sun as viewed from Earth. I have all the details on how to observe this amazing event without burning your damn retina and making yourself blind. I’ll also tell you how to join in on the action even if you are in a part of the world that will miss the event due to nighttime and/or bad weather.

Venus transiting the Sun in 2004. Credit: NASA/TRACE/LMSAL


(UPDATE, yo! The Webcast mentioned below will be hosted by Virtual Star Party on Google Plus, so go circle or bookmark or whatever it now to make sure you don’t miss out.)

Of course, all of us at CosmoQuest have been working hard to make sure you get all your transit information. The Bad Astronomer also has all the information a budding space nerd could want! Here, I’m going to give you some of the highlights and show off my setup. Get yourself ready for The June 5th event by checking the transit time for your location.

In 2004, when Venus last passed across the disc of the Sun, social media really wasn’t a “thing” just yet. Since I was in a part of the US that couldn’t actually see the transit, a bunch of us astronomy kids crammed around our office computers to watch the transit happen online. The internet has come a long way in the interim, and there will surely be dozens of live feeds broadcasting the event. I can just about guarantee that the most hilarity will be happening on Google+ in a live Hangout (find your time) hosted by Fraser Cain, Pamela Gay, and Phil Plait. I’ll be there as well, using my homemade observing apparatus that I just put together an hour ago.

As those who helped me move halfway across the country over the last month know, I own several telescopes. Two of these are busted, dusty, cracked old telescopes that got me through childhood. In fact, one of them is already partly melted from observing sunspots in high school. Let this be a warning to you… THE FOCUSED ENERGY OF THE SUN CAN MELT AND BURN THINGS. Don’t put your eye in the way, and protect yourself, okay! Don’t come crying to me when your retina is on fire. You have been warned.

So, I took my 3-inch Newtonian to make a “sun funnel,” following the instructions here. The materials are cheap and the instructions are easy to follow, so I set out to make one of my own for the webcast.

Note that I've partially covered the opening as well to reduce melt-age.

Well, that was the idea, anyway. I got a bit frustrated with the hose clamps and couldn’t find quite the right funnel… sorry confused Home Depot dude. Much like my last car, the apparatus is being held together with duct tape. This is durable, but I won’t be surprised if things start melting and getting gross. I’m already going to have to de-sticky-fy my nice eyepieces. I also did this *just now* in preparation for Tuesday, so I didn’t get the fancy projection material, just a plain white bandana. Oh yeah, and sanding down of the plastic after sawing off the ends? That’s just aesthetics. My version took a whole 10 minutes, so give it a try.

This will work well for any telescope, but a simple projection onto white paper will work with a telescope, even a Galileoscope, or binoculars. I have all those materials on hand in case I need to switch it up during the event, and I’ve used such a setup before to view sunspots. You can even make a pinhole camera out of a cardboard box if you want to be really low-tech about it.

The safest way to view the transit will be with an online show such as ours, but there is something special about seeing the phenomenon with your own eyes capturing the photons. Safely, of course. Much has been made about safe solar-viewing glasses, but they are already in short supply since we just had an annular eclipse. If you decide to go that route, make sure they are from a reputable dealer, and don’t accept any homemade substitute. Regular sunglasses will NOT protect you when staring at the sun! Though I have a pair of safe solar glasses, thanks to NASA, Venus will be a tiny spot on the sun’s surface, just barely resolved by your eye. My eyesight is pretty bad to begin with, but the glasses are SUPER COOL! (sarcasm)


I was super excited to watch the annular eclipse a few weeks ago with friends on the interwebs even though it was cloudy at my location. I’m even more psyched to watch the transit now that I’m actually prepared! No matter where you are, you can watch live in real life or online, so I don’t want to hear any excuses of, “Oh I missed it!” The next time this happens will be 2117, so unless you plan on being a cyborg or head-in-a-jar, you probably won’t be around to see it.

*Sorry, Phil. I know how much you wanted this job.


Nicole is a professor, astronomer, educator, geek, dog mom, occasional fitness nerd, and maker of tiny comets. She is also very loud under the right circumstances. Like what you read? Buy me a coffee:

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  1. Awesome shades! And thanks for reminding people that Venus will be an eensy weensy speck passing across our view of Sol. Everyone around here seems to think they simply need a solar eclipse viewing box and they’re good to go. Hmph.

    I don’t have a telescope so I’ll be participating online for my viewing pleasure. Cheers!

  2. According to maps, I should be able to see it in progress at sunset (in AZ).

    I’m curious as to exactly how you’re keeping your telescope from being fried. Details, please?

    “Let this be a warning to you… THE FOCUSED ENERGY OF THE SUN CAN MELT AND BURN THINGS.”

    Thank you for inspiring me to make a Death Ray!
    Bwahaha! So long as the enemy shows up near local noon, during a cloudless day….

  3. I just started listening to astronomy cast and heard about the transit from them. I immediatetey ordered some filter paper and made some filters for my 15×70 binoculars (all of the complete filters are sold out, from what found. Making them was much cheaper and fun anyway).

    I really hope the sky is clear at some point from 6:00-8:30 on tues here in western NC. If not, I can still look at the sun whenevever I want .

    Of course I tried out my new filters right away. I admit I was a little underwhelmed. I don’t know what I should have expected, but what I saw was 7 TINY sunspots like fleas on a uniform yellow disc.

    Nicole, will sunspots at this magnification ever be more dramatic than what I witnessed last week?

  4. @Grand Lunar

    You need a filter on your objective lens. Nothing will fry that way. Nicole probably melted some glass by using her telescopes without filters and projecting the image onto a screen like in her picture. But you can view it directly and without any melting with the filter.

    1. Yeah, it probably didn’t help that I used a cheapie telescope I bought in a toy store when I was 13. It was likely the glue or plastic that melted.

      Part of how I’m keeping the 3-inch from getting fried is to cover some of the aperture (front opening) so only some sunlight gets through. But also, it is of much better construction. Still, it’s old and broken in other ways, so I won’t cry too hard if it gets damaged.

      I have used my actual “nice” telescope for solar observing, but only for a few minutes at a time. I wouldn’t dare try this marathon, several-hour session with it.

  5. You probably don’t have time to get a filter now though. You’ll have to project onto a screen like she did. Just don’t let it sit too long. And don’t let anyone get near the eyepiece (notice the “Danger” tape). You’d go blind instantly

  6. You don’t need a fancy setup like Nicole’s. You can put a sheet of paper where you’d normally put your eyes

  7. We are in Hilo, HI for the transit. We are climbing Mauna Kea in the morning to film it, time lapse. Ought to be pretty cool.

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