The lecture theater was already crowded when planetary science lecturer Amanda Bosh kicked things off with a presentation about the history and geometry of transits. Bosh explained why transits occur with the variable frequency that they do - the last one was in 2004 but the next one isn't until 2117; why the first transit measurements were fundamental in establishing the distance between the Earth and the Sun, laying the groundwork for modern planetary science; and finally some background about the travails of would-be transit observers from the 1700's.
Following Bosh's introduction, Seager group postdoc Brice-Olivier Demory, introduced how members of his group, and others investigating the characteristics of the growing number of known exoplanets, use transits to help determine the size and orbital diameter of newly discovered bodies, as well as using changes in spectra characteristics during transit events to probe the chemical composition of exoplanetary atmospheres.
With appropriate eye-protection at the ready, attendees then decamped to the roof of MIT Building 37, the traditional venue for observe@MIT sessions, where research scientist Mike Person and researcher Matt Lockhart had set up a number of telescopes in the hope that the clouds would part and we would have a chance to observe the transit directly. Prof. Rick Binzel and postdoc David Polishook talked with attendees while hoping the skies would clear. Undergrad Stephanie Sallum (2012) engaged the younger members of the audience with a Play-Doh exploration into the relative sizes of planets in our solar system.
Unfortunately the weather would not co-operate, and so we never got to see the sun directly, but with a great attendance (estimated ~200) and interest at both talks and the observing platform afterwards the event was enjoyed by many. The live feed of the transit from Hawaii was very popular. With Bosh, Polishook, and postdoc Francesca DeMeo MC'ing, we were all able to view the stately progress of Venus's silhouette across the the sun's image from first contact, through second contact and on...
Thanks to Rick Binzel, Amanda Bosh, Francesca DeMeo, Brice-Olivier Demory, Phoebe Henderson, Mike Person, David Polishook, Matt Lockhart, Stephanie Sallum, and Sara Seager for this exciting and educational window on planetary science.