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Eyes turn skyward as Venus travels across the sun

OAKLAND – More than 1,000 astronomy enthusiasts thronged the Chabot Space and Science Center on Tuesday to see the Transit of Venus, a once-in-a-lifetime event that won't come again until 2117.

Venus begins to pass in front of the sun, as visible from New York, on Tuesday. H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

Venus begins to pass in front of the sun, as visible from New York, on Tuesday.

H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

Venus begins to pass in front of the sun, as visible from New York, on Tuesday.

"It's really, really cool," said Emily Schweizer, 10. "It's a little dot crossing the sun, except that the dot happens to be Venus."

She got to skip school to witness the event, said her dad, David Schweizer, 49. "I couldn't imagine what they could be doing in school today that would be more educational."

The lines to look through Chabot's three large telescopes snaked through the plaza behind the observatory, a testament to the desire to experience events physically, not just see them on TV, said Alexander Zwissler, the center's executive director. "We've been telling people that there's a nice room downstairs where they could watch it all comfortably on-screen, but they want to be here, outside in the wind, eye to eyepiece."

Neurosurgeon Larry Dickinson was on trauma call at Eden Medical Center just down the road but walked over to be a part of it all.

"You see the bigger picture" when you look through the telescope at the heavens, he said. "You don't get so stressed out by living when you realize that we're just this little speck in space."

Chabot astronomer Conrad Jung had his telescope hooked to his camera, snapping shots of the transit as Venus moved across the disk of the sun.

"This is one of the rarest astronomical events for any person to see," he said. "No one alive today will see the next Transit of Venus."

For Kai Teigen, 7, of Berkeley, the whole thing was simple.

"I saw a little black spot in a big white circle," he said after taking his turn at a telescope. "It's Venus."

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 rare sight. Many in the eastern part of the U.S., though, found cloudy skies in the way.

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

Terrestrial stargazers were warned to look at the celestial event only with a properly filtered telescope or cardboard eclipse glasses. Looking directly at the sun could cause permanent eye damage.

In Los Angeles, the Griffith Observatory rolled out the red carpet for Venus. The last time the city witnessed a Venus transit was 130 years ago in 1882. A 2004 transit was not visible from the western U.S.

Telescopes with special filters were set up next to the lawn and people took turns peering at the sun.

Minutes before Venus first touched the outer edge of the sun, Sousa's Transit Of Venus March blared. The crowd turned skyward. For nearly 18 minutes, Venus appeared as a black spot.

Jamie Jetton took the day off from work to take her two nephews, 6 and 11, visiting from Arizona to the observatory. Sporting eclipse glasses, it took a little while before they spotted Venus.

"I'm still having fun. It's an experience. It's something we'll talk about for the rest of our lives," she said.

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.

It was 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.

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 had a watch party at its Goddard Visitor Center in Maryland with solar telescopes, images from its Solar Dynamics Observatory Mission and commentary.

Most people don't tend to gaze at the sun because it's painful and people instinctively look away, but there's a 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 a 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 can be 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.

People in most areas of North and Central America would see the start of the transit until the sun set, while those in western Asia, the eastern half of Africa and most of Europe would 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, would get the whole show because the entire transit will happen during daylight in those regions.

Contributing: Elizabeth Weise in Oakland

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