NASA is hoping that the 2012 Transit of Venus may be able to aid one of its satellites in an unprecedentedly accurate measurement of the sun's size.
The RHESSI (Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager) satellite focuses on the highest energy x-rays and gamma-rays produced by the sun, helping to observe solar flares of all shapes and sizes. The satellite is pointed toward the sun, and constantly in rotation, which provides a serendipitous bit of side research: by monitoring the limb of the sun on its four second rotation cycle, RHESSI’s Solar Aspect System (SAS) has produced ten years worth of precise measurements of the sun's diameter.
The sharpness of the Venus disk during the 2012 Transit of Venus will help NASA determine the detailed optical properties of the telescope and calibrate the instrument’s so-called plate scale, the exact angular size of each pixel. With this improvement in hand, RHESSI can re-calibrate its already highly accurate observations of the sun's horizon. To further this aim, NASA's RHESSI science team has set the instrument to look at 64 pixels across the sun's limb, rather than its customary four.
NASA's observations of the 2004 Transit of Venus were taken during a time when the sun's activity was decreasing toward solar minimum. The 2012 Transit of Venus on the other hand, is taking place when the solar activity is increasing as it moves toward solar maximum predicted for 2013.
NASA's science team hopes to compare the sun's size during the two Transits of Venus to see if it varies with the solar cycle.
With ten years of solar diameter measurements, RHESSI has already provided scientists with one of the most accurate measurements of what's called the oblateness of the sun, which is the difference between the diameter from pole to pole and the equatorial diameter. With the new data obtained during the Venus Transit on June 5-6, 2012, the RHESSI team hopes to improve the knowledge of the exact shape of the sun and provide a more accurate measure of the diameter than has previously been obtained.
IMAGE CREDIT: NASA / Artist rendition of RHESSI spacecraft in orbit.