Astronomy enthusiasts around the world are gearing up for Tuesday’s celestial show: the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. The small black dot of Venus, silhouetted against the bright Sun, will be visible with safe solar telescopes and, to those with especially good vision, with the naked eye when protected by eclipse glasses.
If you visit the Public Observatory during its daytime hours in May (1–3pm on Wednesday through Saturday, weather permitting), you can use the 16” telescope to observe an object which looks a lot like the Moon. Hanging in a blue sky, it shines with yellowish reflected sunlight.
The universe is about 13.7 billion years old and has expanded since its beginning at the Big Bang. Because distant objects appear to be receding as the universe expands, the light from them is “stretched” out, altering its wavelength to the red part of the electromagnetic spectrum. This “redshift” can be measured for every object in deep space.
The night opened with few clouds and a bright waxing gibbous moon. Alex and I, interns at the National Air and Space Museum, stood outside with Sean O'Brien, astronomy educator at the Museum and Albert Einstein Planetarium technician, to survey the sky and anticipate the night. This was my first star party at the Museum. As we set up, the first line of visitors formed outside the door of the Public Observatory waiting for 6 p.m. — opening time. We set up the Tele Vue telescope first. The view was spectacular. Along the terminator, the line between the dark and light sides of the Moon, craters popped between the stark white of the moon and the blue of the sky.
For the month of June, 30 beautiful images of the solar system are on display on the terrace by the Independence Avenue entrance. They are part of the From Earth to the Solar System exhibition developed by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory/Chandra with the NASA Astrobiology Institute.
Nearly 50 years ago, John Glenn purchased a camera at a drug store that served as the first astronomical experiment performed by a human in space. That three-orbit voyage for Glenn included two cameras, one the Ansco he purchased and the other a Leica supplied by NASA. The flight not only kicked off decades of orbital experiences for U.S. astronauts, but also science experiments, observations, and thousands of rolls of film and digital files created through hand-held photography. The results of those experiments and the photos taken are what people left on Earth use even today to understand human spaceflight.
On the morning of March 2, I got an excited text message from fellow astronomy educator Shelley Witte, telling me that the International Space Station (ISS) and Space Shuttle Discovery would be coming very close to transiting the Sun from our position at the National Air and Space Museum’s Public Observatory at exactly 3:08 pm.
On Saturday, March 19, I was thrilled to participate in the first ever Sun-Earth Day Tweetup organized by the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center. It was also the first time the Smithsonian officially participated in a Tweetup. The event was a great opportunity to give twitter fans (aka “tweeps”) some face-to-face interaction with our research scientists, curators and educators, and provide some fun hands-on learning that illustrated the Sun-Earth connection.