Lebanese stargaze as Venus kisses the sun

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Even before the sun rose in the Lebanese capital, Bob Merhebi was watching Venus make a rare passage across the sun – in an online broadcast from Australia.

Then at 5:30 a.m., he and around 50 other astronomy enthusiasts gathered at the parking lot at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure center to watch a small black speck graze across the yellow fiery ball.

“It’s exciting to raise public awareness of astronomy in the region so that people can see that anyone can do this – not just professionals,” said the physics student from the Lebanese International University, who in 2005 also co-founded the Lebanese Astronomy Group, which organizes stargazing events.

Another gathering, organized by Notre Dame University-Louaize, brought stargazers to the mountains, leaving in a bus from Beirut at 2:30 a.m.

As people drove up in the early morning hours to get a glimpse of the rare sighting through eclipse glasses and telescopes that were set up at the site, the aspiring astrophysicist said he was happy with the public turn-out but hoped that more people would be interested in stars and planets – not just special events.

Indeed, many people appeared to be sharing his enthusiasm, with stargazers coming from different parts of the country to briefly see Venus in front of the sun through a telescope.

Tima Zbib, who learned about the event from Facebook, drove with her husband from Nabatieh to have the chance to use the telescope.

“You need to have passion to get up early,” she said. “I wish there were more scientific and educational events like this.”

Similarly, Adel Ballout, a Lebanese expatriate based in Dubai, on a visit to Beirut, said he couldn’t miss this opportunity and wished more similar gatherings would be held.

“I woke up at 5 a.m. and had my manqoushe and then came here,” Ballout said. “Music events are well promoted in Lebanon. It should be the same for this.”

But Majdi Saad, editor in chief of Science and World magazine, who organized the gathering, said he had intentionally gave it a “limited promotion” because of the security situation in the country. He said that in 2003, 70,000 Lebanese gathered to watch the planet Mars approach its nearest distance to Earth in 60,000 years. Since then, such events have been less attended, but with an increased public awareness of the solar system.

The Venus transits come in pairs, with latest coupling occurring in 2004 and now in 2012. Before that, the last two times Venus transited across Sol was 1874 and 1882.

Merhebi said he was unable to see the one in 2004 because he had high school exams at the time. If he hadn’t seen it this morning, he would have missed his chance, since the next one will be in 2117.

Still, he emphasized that there are many opportunities for people to see different star and planet sightings, and one doesn’t need to be an expert to do it – just have a love of the stars and the sky.

“Every astronomical event is exciting on its own,” he said.

“Even seeing the stars every night is special.”

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