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Calculating Astronomical Unit from Venus Transit

A) Background
1) Parallaxes of the Sun (the horizontal parallaxes)
By definition the parallaxes of the Sun is the angle shown below:

By trigonometry, sin = R / r but the angle is small and sin can be

approximated by measured in radians. R is the radius of Earth and r is the
distance from the observer to the object. We can get r using the relationship
r = R/

2) Observation from the Earth

Let's consider two observers on the Earth situated in points A and B on the
same longitude (meridian), but at very different latitudes. The alignment of AB
should be approximately perpendicular to the line of sight to the transit so as
to keep the errors as small as possible. Venus is seen as a small disk on the face
of the Sun at two different points A' and B'. This is because the lines of sight
of A and B towards Venus are not identical.

Putting the two observations together using the reference stars it is possible to
measure this parallax displacement.

3) A Geometrical Problem
Let's consider the plane defined by three points: the Earth's centre O, the
Sun's centre C and the Venus centre V.

The triangles APV and BPC have the same external angles at P, hence
v + 1 = s + 2
v - s = 2 - 1 =
Where angle measures the distance between the different positions of
Venus's trace on the face of the Sun. Rearranging the last equation gives
= s (v/ s - 1)
Now Venus's parallax is v = AB/(re- rv) and the Sun's parallax s = AB/re, hence
the quotient v/ s = re/(re- rv).
Substituting this into the equation above gives

= s (re/(re- rv) - 1) = s rv/(re- rv)

In particular, we can get the solar parallax,
s = (re/ rv - 1)

Note that in order to measure it is necessary to superimpose the two Sun

centres at C and then is the distance between the two traces of Venus
observed at same time from A and B.
4) Kepler's Third Law
Let's take re as the Earth-Sun distance and rv the Venus-Sun distance. We can
calculate the ratio (rv/ re)3 by using Kepler's Third Law as we know that the
periods of revolution of Venus and of the Earth are 224.7 days and 365.25 days
(re/ rv)3 = (365.25/224.7)2
re/ rv = 1.38248
5) Final formulae for the Earth-Sun distance.
Using this result in the parallax formula from section 3, we get
s = ((re/ rv) - 1)= (1.38248 - 1)
s = 0.38248
And finally using the parallax formula from section (1), the distance from the
Earth to the Sun re is
re= AB/s

So we need to find AB from the location of the observers and to measure

from observational data of the transit.

B) Observational data needed

1) Distance between observers at points A and B
The distance AB can be deduced from the latitude of the two points of observation. In
the diagram, 1 and 2 are the latitudes of A and B, and R is the radius of the Earth.

In the right angled triangle that divides the isosceles triangle RAB
sin ((1 + 2)/2) = AB/2)/R.

Then the distance AB is

AB = 2 R sin ((1 + 2)/2)

Be careful. If both cities are in the same hemisphere, the angle is (1 - 2)/2
and also the geometrical situation changes if both cities are on different
2) Distance between two observed paths of Venus
In order to calculate we need the data obtained by two observers at the points A
and B on the same longitude (meridian). In any case it is necessary to have a
"photograph" of the paths of Venus visible from each location or the times that Venus
crossed the Sun's disk.

Calculation of by direct measurement

Measure the diameter of the Sun D and the distance between the two paths , that is
to say A'B', on a photograph. The angular diameter of the Sun, seen from the Earth is
30' (minutes of arc or 30 / 60). By means of simple proportion, the distance between
the observations of Venus is linked to the Sun's diameter by
/30' = A'B'/D

= (30') (A'B'/D )

but the formula requires the Sun's angular diameter to be expressed in radians.
= (30 /10800) (A'B'/D)
= (/360) (A'B'/D)

C) Observations that you can make in 2012

1) Single observations that are quick and easy to make
Make plans to record an image of the transit when Venus is on the mid-line of
the face of the Sun (point A'). You then need to share your results with another
observer who is located on the same longitude (meridian) and who will observe at
more or less the same time (point B').
You have to measure the distances DA and (from the centre of the Sun CA
and CB) as shown in the diagram. Obviously the diagrams must be adjusted to be
the same size to allow DA and to be compared.
To obtain the highest accuracy you will need to take a photograph or make a still
video image.

You can try to make a pencil sketch of a projected image but the problem will be
that the image will drift across your screen as the Earth turns. This will make it
difficult but not impossible to be precise.
We suggest you try a combination of methods in case one of them lets you down!
To calculate you need to measure the diameter of the image D, and DA and DB
to the same scale. Then taking the angular diameter of the Sun, seen from the
Earth as 30' (minutes of arc)
= (/360)((DB - DA)/D) = ........... radians
s = 0.38248 = ........... radians
and the distance AB is
AB = 2 . 6378 . sin ((1 - 2) / 2) = ........... km
where 1 and 2 are the latitudes of the observers and the radius of the Earth,
R = 6378 km. If the observers are in opposite hemispheres, the angle is (1 +
2) / 2.
and finally the Earth-Sun distance
re = AB/ =........... km
If you want, you can find your own value for the angular diameter of the Sun
but you will need to know the focal lengths of your telescope's eyepiece and
objective lens and you will have to refer to an optics text book for the
necessary formula.
2) Longer observations that are quite easy to make

If you are able to make observations throughout the transit, you will be able to
plot the path of Venus and note the times of first and second contacts.
If you can observe for at least half an hour you can reconstruct the whole
transit as follows. Record the exact starting and finishing times of your
observations. On a scale drawing, mark a line to represent the path of Venus
during your observations. Now extend this straight line until it touches the
limbs (edges) of the Sun's image. This is shown in the diagram.

By simple ratios you can find the time for the total transit (for instance tA).
You then need to share your results with an observer who is located at a
different latitude.
You will then have their transit time tB and so will be able to calculate the
Earth-Sun distance, also known as the astronomical unit (1 AU).
The great advantage of this method is that you do not need to be on the same
longitude (meridian) as the other observer.