Science and History: The Transit of Venus

The Transit of Venus and it’s Connection to Australian History

Coming up this Wednesday 6th June, the planet Venus will cross in front of the sun.  This phenomenon is known as the Transit of Venus and we are fortunate enough to be able to view it in Australia.  This is a rare opportunity as the Transit only occurs  twice in more than 100 years.  It last occurred in June 2004 and after this week it will not be seen until December 2117!

History of Astronomical Sciences

The pursuit of scientific knowledge through Astronomy has long been an important human endeavour.  The stars have fascinated humans for all of recorded history.  From early theories of a sun-centric solar system, to celestial navigation used by sailors exploring our vast oceans, astronomy has been pushing boundaries of human understanding.  The Transit of Venus became a significant scientific pursuit when Edmund Halley suggested in 1716 that observing the Transit from different locations could be used to determine the size of the solar system.

Captain Cook and the Transit of Venus


Drawings of the Transit of Venus by Captain James Cook and Charles Green

Captain Cook’s exploration of Australia is well known as the turning point for Australia to become a British Colony.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain was working hard to discover new land and to expand her empire.  Captain Cook played a fundamental role in Britain’s ambitions.  Less people know the connection between Cook’s famed first voyage and the Transit of Venus.

When Cook set out on his first Voyage as Captain of the Endeavour in 1768 his instructions were to sail to Tahiti to track the Transit of Venus.  It wasn’t until after he completed his work in Tahiti that he opened sealed orders to sail on a look for the suspected ‘Great Southern Land’.  Many at the time believed that a land mass equivalent to the Euro-Asian continent, must exist in the Southern Hemisphere.

It was on this quest that Cook came across Australia and charted the east coast.  However he did not believe that Australia was the Great Southern Land he was looking for and carried on his voyage, but he did provide his information to the British Authorities who later instructed the First Fleet to sail for Australia and establish a Penal Colony.  The Transit of Venus and Australia’s history as a British Colony are strongly linked.  You can read more about Cook and the Transit on this website from NASA and this website.

Viewing the Transit of Venus

The upcoming Transit of Venus on Wednesday June 6 is a special opportunity for students to experience a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event, discover more of astronomical science and consider the historical importance of the Transit to Australia.

Most of the Transit of Venus will occur during school hours so it will be easy for classes to view it.  But remember, it is essential that safe practises are followed whenever viewing the Transit and never look directly at the sun.  For more information on how to view the Transit safely visit the international Transit website.  You can also download a phone app (for both Android and iPhone) which will allow you to measure and record the contact times, amongst other features.  From the Astronomical Association of Queensland there is a useful website dedicated solely to Australian viewing, including a live video stream and lots of useful resources for teachers.

Transit of Venus at Sovereign Hill

To celebrate the Transit of Venus we will be offering visitors the opportunity to safely view the Transit and discuss it’s historical importance.  Weather permitting, there will be demonstrations in the Main Street and school groups visiting will have the opportunity to make their own pin-hole cameras to view the event.

You can also contact your local observatory to find out what events they have available.  Ballarat Observatory will be open on the 6th with staff available to assist visitors.

Tim Sullivan, our Deputy CEO and Museums Director, shares his excitement about the Transit of Venus in this short video.

You may also like to listen to this podcast from the Royal Society where Andrea Wulf speaks about the importance of the Transit of Venus and considers it’s place as the first example of global scientific collaboration.

3 responses to “Science and History: The Transit of Venus

  1. This is an excellent post–a once in a lifetime opportunity to see something extraordinary in space. The ABC Science Show also has an excellent profile of it–go their website and have a listen to the podcast.

  2. We hope you all had a great day watching the Transit of Venus! While it was cloudy for most of the day in Ballarat, there were a few moments of sunshine to view the Transit. Our volunteers did a great job showing adults and children how to view the Transit and explain it’s importance. We loved this comment from a visitor:

    Did the transit cause the king tides?
    At Sovereign Hill in Ballarat they had a setup for safely viewing the transit with appropriate equipment and gentlemen garbed in period costume of a century ago, and the sun obligingly peeked out for ten minutes near lunchtime, giving us (and many visiting schoolchildren) a perfect view on a large sheet of paper.
    (Nomad Thursday 7 June, 2012 – 9:06 AM) on the 3AW blog.

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