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Museum visitors get view of Venus

Venus in transit across the sun was a thing of beauty to behold Tuesday evening for amateur astronomer Bob Hughes, of the Town of Tonawanda.

"It's actually larger than Jupiter looked in the sky. It's as big as a planet can look in the sky, actually," said Hughes, from the rooftop of the Buffalo Museum of Science.

Hughes, who observed the rare celestial phenomenon through his own telescope and a homemade cardboard projection box, was one of a multitude of local curiosity-seekers eager to glimpse the once-in-a-lifetime planetary spectacle. The transit, which won't be seen again until 2117, was visible in the sky for about three hours beginning at 6:04 p.m.

However, gawkers needed a few visual aids and protection for their eyes against the intensity of the sun to see it.

An impressively long line snaked around the outside of the museum about 45 minutes before the official start of the spectacle. Among those on the line was Collin Olkowski, a third-grader at Smallwood Elementary School in Amherst, armed with special goggles given to him by his father.

"It allows you to see [the transit] without damaging your eyes," said Collin, who went to the museum with his mother, Joanna, and grandmother Claudia Weiss.

"Well, I think [the transit of Venus across the sun is] special, because this is how they figured out how far the Earth is from the son, and Collin thinks it's special because it's his birthday," Weiss said.

Tuesday's event 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.

Byron Jackson, of Buffalo, brought his mother, Ida Thomas, but declined to tell her what they were going to the Science Museum to see. Amazingly, she hadn't heard about the impending transit.

"I don't know why I'm here. My son told me to just come with him, and he didn't tell me anything [about] why we were coming. He just told me we're going to see something spectacular," Thomas said.

"I just told her we're going to be looking up," Jackson said.

Those on the Science Museum rooftop had a few options for observing the phenomenon. The museum had a telescope on the roof pointed at the sun.

"What's happening is that they're using the scope to focus the light and the power of the sun, and it's projecting through the eyepiece onto a white sheet of paper, and you can see the transit that way," explained Brian Enright, community partners coordinator at the Museum of Science.

That was the method Hughes used to view the transit, only he brought his own telescope. He encouraged others to view the transit as the image was projected onto a white piece of paper inside a cardboard box .

"It can only be done on small telescopes. Anything larger than this, a 2.4-inch telescope, will cause damage," Hughes said.

The museum also had a full viewing telescope with solar filters that allowed viewers to look directly into the sun.

"And then you actually have the solar viewing glasses, which are specially designed glasses for you to look at the sun," Enright said. "What's interesting about the transit of Venus is that it's one of the few transits that is visible to the naked eye. As long as you have eye protection from the sun, you'll be able to see Venus [crossing] the sun."