Eyes Turn Skyward as Venus Travels Across the Sun

For some astronomers, it wasn't just a rare planetary spectacle — it won't be seen for another 150 years. They hoped the passage of Venus between the Earth and the sun would spark curiosity about the universe and our place in it.

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by Oskar Garcia, Associated Press

None of us will likely see Venus pass, like a moving beauty spot, across the face of the sun again.

From the U.S. to South Korea, people around the world turned their attention to the daytime sky on Tuesday and early Wednesday in Asia to make sure they caught the once-in-a-lifetime sight of the transit of Venus.

For some astronomers, it wasn't just a rare planetary spectacle — it won't be seen for another 150 years. They hoped the passage of Venus between the Earth and the sun would spark curiosity about the universe and our place in it.

Sul Ah Chim, a researcher at the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute in South Korea, said he hoped people see life from a larger perspective, and "not get caught up in their small, everyday problems."

"When you think about it from the context of the universe, 105 years is a very short period of time and the Earth is only a small, pale blue spot," he said.

While astronomers used the latest technology to document the transit, American astronaut Don Pettit aboard the International Space Station was planning to take photos of the event and post them online.

Meanwhile, terrestrial stargazers were warned to only look at the celestial event with a properly filtered telescope or cardboard eclipse glasses.

In Mexico, at least 100 people lined up two hours early to view the event through telescopes or one of the 150 special viewing glasses on hand, officials said. Observation points were also set up at a dozen locations.

If the sun is viewed directly, permanent eye damage could result.

"It's absolutely not an old wives' tale," said Steven Nusinowitz, associate professor of ophthalmology at the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute. "Looking directly at the sun is foolish and not advisable."

Venus, which is extremely hot, is one of Earth's two neighbors and is so close in size to our planet that scientists at times call them near-twins. During the transit, it will appear as a small dot.

The transit is happening during a 6-hour, 40-minute span that began just after 6 p.m. EDT in the United States. What you can see and for how long depends on what the sun's doing in your region during that exact window, and the weather.

Those in most areas of North and Central America will see the start of the transit until the sun sets, while those in western Asia, the eastern half of Africa and most of Europe will catch the transit's end once the sun comes up.

Hawaii, Alaska, eastern Australia and eastern Asia including Japan, North and South Korea and eastern China will get the whole show since the entire transit will happen during daylight in those regions.

In Hawaii, astronomers planned viewings at Waikiki Beach, Pearl Harbor and Ko Olina. At Waikiki, officials planned to show webcasts as seen from telescopes from volcanoes Mauna Kea on the Big Island and Haleakala on Maui.

NASA planned a watch party at its Goddard Visitor Center in Maryland with solar telescopes, "Hubble-quality" images from its Solar Dynamics Observatory Mission and expert commentary and presentations.

Most people don't tend to gaze at the sun for long periods of time because it's painful and people instinctively look away. But there's the temptation to stare at it during sky shows like solar eclipses or transits of Venus.

The eye has a lens and if you stare at the sun, it concentrates sunlight on the retina and can burn a hole through it. It's similar to when you hold a magnifying glass under the blazing sun and light a piece of paper on fire.

It can take several hours for people to notice problems with their eyes but, by that time, the damage is done and, in some cases, irreversible.

During the 1970 solar eclipse visible from the eastern U.S., 145 burns of the retina were reported, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Experts from Hong Kong's Space Museum and local astronomical groups were organizing a viewing Wednesday outside the museum's building on the Kowloon waterfront overlooking the southern Chinese city's famed Victoria Harbor.

This will be the seventh transit visible since German astronomer Johannes Kepler first predicted the phenomenon in the 17th century. Because of the shape and speed of Venus' orbit around the sun and its relationship to Earth's annual trip, transits occur in pairs separated by more than a century.

It's nowhere near as dramatic and awe-inspiring as a total solar eclipse, which sweeps a shadow across the Earth, but there will be six more of those this decade.

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Oskar Garcia can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia

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Contributing to this report are AP Science Writer Alicia Chang in Los Angeles; and Associated Press writers Rachel D'Oro in Anchorage, Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Hye Soo Nah in Seoul.

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