Look! Up in the sky ... - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
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  • Look! Up in the sky ...

    About three dozen people gathered on the observation deck of the Duquesne Incline just after dawn Tuesday to witness the solar transit of Venus -- a celestial event that last occurred 122 years ago.

    "This is as close as most people ever get to outer space. This is just completely amazing," said William Lewis, 24, of Mt. Washington, as he snapped digital pictures of projections thrown from telescopes onto white paper backgrounds.

    Through the Celestron reflector telescope lenses, the planet appeared as a black dot on the sun's surface.

    Planetariums the world over -- from India's eastern city of Bhubaneswar to Boston -- set up telescopes with eye-protecting solar filters.

    The Royal Observatory, beside the Thames in southeast London, has a historic connection to the transit across the sun, which occurs twice -- eight years apart -- about every century. In 1716, Edmond Halley of comet fame observed the transit at Greenwich to calculate the distance between the Earth and the sun.

    A key viewing location in Britain was Carr House in Much Hoole in northwest England. A telescope was set up in the bedroom where astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks observed the transit for the first time on Nov. 24, 1639.

    In Greece, two American experts stationed themselves at opposite ends of the country -- the southern island of Crete and the northern city of Thessaloniki -- in hopes of unlocking the mystery behind the "black drop effect," which makes Venus appear teardrop-shaped instead of a circle when it aligns with the edges of the sun.

    "It's like a fine French wine for the people who know about it and enjoy it," gushed Jay Pasachoff, an astronomer at Williams College in Massachusetts, as he watched the event from the observatory of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

    Pasachoff's team collected data on Venus' atmosphere. It also took advantage of the transit to refine techniques for studying so-called "exoplanets" orbiting distant stars. They used 12 telescopes and NASA's Transition Region and Coronal Explorer spacecraft, known by its initials as TRACE, to observe the transit.

    People in Africa and Europe could also see almost the entire show, while only the tail end of the event could be seen by just the eastern portions of the United States and Canada.

    The transit will happen again in 2012, but it won't be visible in Pittsburgh, so Emily Jack, 25, of Bloomfield, didn't want to miss this one.

    "It's good to have something that pulls you out of your regular routine. It gives you a chance to see things a little differently," she said.

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.