From the April 2012 issue

The last of the biggies . . .

June 2012: And the first of many for generations Y and Z.
By | Published: April 23, 2012 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
People often roll their eyes when old-timers reminisce. So although I’m not yet getting Social Security, I’m hesitant to share memories of the good old days.

But this month’s Venus transit forces me to. It’s the last of the biggies — the final super-rare sky spectacle I dreamt about when I was a kid.

As a 13-year-old living in my library’s astronomy section, I memorized all the named stars and their spectral classes. What I could not do was make time pass faster so I could experience the near-mythical future events those books promised. I trembled with excitement over the prospect of someday traveling to the 1970 total eclipse in Virginia Beach, and I drooled at the thought of gazing at the famous Halley’s Comet, scheduled to arrive in the far future of 1986. What would the world be like in that era after Orwell’s scary totalitarian novel, 1984?

The books promised a meteor storm in 1999. It was supposed to reprise the awesome 1966 event I’d read about, where Texans saw 60 meteors a second! Holy cow. That would be followed by the new millennium. I wondered if the world would celebrate on December 31, 1999, when all those digits would dramatically flip like a car odometer, or instead wait for the official start of the millennium in 2001. What kind of social wildness would unfold for a once-per-thousand-year happening?

After that, only two further extraordinary events dwelled in my adolescent brain: the transit of Venus in 2004 and its twin in 2012. Venus had not crossed the Sun’s face since 1882, so this transit-pair would be the rarest of all events during my lifetime.

So how did all these things work out in the fullness of time? Virginia Beach was cloudless and amazing, but Halley’s Comet proved a disappointing smudge. I led a group to South Asia to observe its post-perihelion return in the spring of 1986, and its tail fell off. We all wanted a refund. It was Halley’s least favorable visit in history. It looked far inferior to Comet Bennett in 1970, West in ’76, Hyakutake in ’96, and Hale-Bopp in ’97. Even my college astrophysics professors hadn’t known that the Earth-Sun-Halley geometry would be terrible this time around, and that only next time, in 2061, will it stretch across half the sky. (It’ll get even better for its following visit in the 22nd century. Those will be the best Halley conditions since Julius Caesar created his famous salad.)

It’s our sister planet’s
final transit for
everyone whose gym
membership won’t
get them to 2117.

The Leonid storm fizzled in 1999, though it later fashioned a fine show in the wee hours of November 18, 2001. No storm, but the best-ever meteors for most of us. Nowadays, the experts don’t anticipate any storm until 2099.
The millennium celebrations were just OK, tempered perhaps by the Y2K fears. And a year later, the world pretty much ignored the official start of the millennium. What the heck happened? I thought we were a party planet.

Then came the 2004 transit. It didn’t disappoint. Venus materialized with just the naked eye protected by #14 welder’s goggles. The transit didn’t pack the visceral punch of a total solar eclipse. It wasn’t pretty like a great comet. But Venus was there like clockwork, and it was even a bit eerie. Now this month, June 5, the United States is again on the fortunate Sun-facing side of Earth. It’s our sister planet’s final transit for everyone whose gym membership won’t get them to 2117.
In Glenn Chaple’s column on the next page and Senior Editor Richard Talcott’s “How to view June’s rare Venus transit” on page 50, you’ll find tips on observing this transit. For me, however, it marks the final entry on my bucket list. It’s the last of those far-flung wonders I’d hoped to experience when I was a kid.
But what about today’s 13-year-olds? What might be on their list of rare, don’t-miss celestial spectacles? What beckons as they look ahead to their Metamucil years?

Start with the coast-to-coast eclipse of August 21, 2017 — the first solar totality over the mainland United States in 38 years. Then just 10 months later, in June 2018, the asteroid Vesta comes extraordinarily close and sparkles easily to the naked eye. Next is a lovely solar totality from Texas to New England on April 8, 2024. Five years later, the asteroid Apophis barely misses us and visibly glides across the sky April 13, 2029. Then comes the longest totality in U.S. history August 12, 2045 — six full minutes of noonday stars and pink prominences. Current 13-year-olds also will get an extremely close Mars encounter in 2050. Finally, there’s that amazing Comet Halley visit in 2061, followed by two U.S. solar totalities within 12 months, in 2078 and 2079, and capped by the Leonid meteor storm of 2099. I hope you’re writing this down.

Some additional super-spectacles, like animated northern lights displays and first-time CGI-worthy great comets, can’t be predicted. They’ll be surprise gifts. They’ll fill in the gaps in the bucket list.

Bottom line: For today’s astro-newbies, fabulous events lie ahead.

And that’s how human lives sync up with the heavens.

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