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Venus Transit Viewing on Three Islands

by Donna Bebber, IfA Events Coordinator

Venus crosses the disk of the Sun. Photo by Richard Wainscoat.

On June 5, one of the largest public outreach endeavors in the history of the Institute for Astronomy took place on O‘ahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i Island. Thousands turned out to see the transit of Venus in what was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event, since the next one won’t occur until 2117.

More than 13,000 people viewed the transit at four IfA venues on O‘ahu. From noon until dusk, the IfA provided safe viewing facilities at Waikīkī Beach, the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor, Ko Olina Resort, and at IfA Mānoa. IfA faculty, staff, and students handed out solar viewers that allowed people to look at the Sun without damaging their eyes and provided telescopes equipped with solar filters to give people a better view of this event. Additional activities, such as robotics displays and other science and technology activities for children and adults, were available at all locations.

Telescopes at Waikiki

Telescopes with solar filters on Waikīkī Beach. Photo by Karen Teramura.

Roy Gal
Roy Gal. Photo by Karen Teramura.

At Waikīkī Beach, astronomer Roy Gal tirelessly explained what was happening throughout the afternoon from a three-sided tent with a public address system and two screens that showed the webcasts from Mauna Kea and Haleakalā. Numerous faculty and students staffed telescopes on the hot beach. Friends of the IfA handed out solar viewers and information about the IfA, and signed up new members. Scientists from the UH NASA Astrobiology Institute (UHNAI) took the opportunity to talk with members of the public about the transit and their work, members of the UH Math Department’s SUPER-M Outreach Team provided models to explain the geometry of the transit, and IfA graduate students brought the IfA’s infrared camera to give passersby the opportunity to see what they looked like at infrared wavelengths. Altogether, we reached about 10,000 people, both tourists and Hawai‘i residents, in Waikīkī.

At Ko Olina, IfA provided viewing opportunities for more than 1,000 people, while Friends of the IfA provided refreshments, distributed viewers, and passed out information.

At the Pacific Aviation Museum, we expected 1,000–1,500 people, and got over 2,000.  In addition to solar viewers and telescopes, IfA astronomers brought the StarLab portable planetarium because there was a safe, indoor location for it. The Kalani High School Robotics Team brought their fantastic robots, and the SUPER-M Outreach Team had their Lego Mindstorms robots and their water rockets out for more fun activities.

UH Manoa executives view transit

Among those viewing the transit with solar viewers at IfA Mānoa were members of the Mānoa Executive Team, including Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw (center). Photo by Karen Teramura.

A last-minute addition to the O‘ahu viewing venues was the IfA building in Mānoa. Eight hundred people showed up, and a quarter of them signed up to receive Friends of the IfA emails about future events.

On Hawai‘i Island, over 1,500 people came to view the transit at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (VIS), and 400 took a free shuttle service to the summit. The VIS also provided three viewing stations at Kea‘au, the Natural Energy Laboratory in Kona, and Mauna Kea State Park that attracted an additional 1,500 viewers. ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo also provided viewing opportunities.

Observing the transit at the Mauna Kea VIS. Photo by Bob McLaren.

On Maui, 2,500 solar viewers were distributed. While the public enjoyed just viewing the transit, scientists there used this rare opportunity to conduct experiments on Haleakalā: One group used the SOLARC telescope to run two scientific experiments on the composition of Venus’s atmosphere. A second group used the MOTH (Magneto-Optical filters at Two Heights) II instrument for the first time at Mees Solar Observatory to measure the polarization in that planet’s atmosphere.

In addition, millions of people were able to view webcasts of the transit from the summits of Mauna Kea and Haleakalā over the Internet.


UHNAI booth

Jacqueline Keane and Lydia Hallis of UHNAI explained their work to transit viewers. Photo by Nancy Lyttle.

Donations to Friends of the IfA made it possible to purchase and distribute over 20,000 free solar viewers on all three islands.

On May 30, in preparation for this event, IfA sponsored a free panel discussion about the transit of Venus in the Art Auditorium on the Mānoa campus to educate the public about the upcoming event and safe viewing. IfA astronomer Paul Coleman spoke about Hawaiians’ knowledge of the heavens before Western contact and the role of Hawai‘i during the 1874 transit of Venus; IfA solar physicist Shadia Habbal spoke about the Sun and its connection to Venus and Earth; Peter Mouginis-Mark, the director of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at UH Mānoa, talked about Venus itself; and IfA’s Roy Gal spoke about the transit on June 5.