Mercury Transit Next Monday (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Fri, 08 Nov 2019

Mercury Transit Next Monday

[Mercury Transit 2006, photo by Brocken Inaglory]
Mercury Transit 2006, photo by Brocken Inaglory
Next Monday, November 11, is a transit of Mercury across the sun.

Mercury transits aren't super rare -- not once- or twice-in-a-lifetime events like Venus transits -- but they're not that common, either. The last Mercury transit was in 2016; the next one won't happen til 2032.

This year's transit isn't ideal for US observers. The transit will already be well underway by the time the sun rises, at least in the western US. Here in New Mexico (Mountain time), the sun rises with Mercury transiting, and the transit lasts until 11:04 MST. Everybody else, check timeanddate's Mercury Transit page for your local times.

Mercury is small, unfortunately, so it's not an easy thing to see without magnification. Of course, you know that you should never look at the sun without an adequate filter. But even if you have safe "eclipse glasses", it may be tough to spot Mercury's small disk against the surface of the sun.

[binocular projection of a solar eclipse] One option is to take some binoculars and use them to project an image. Point the big end of the binoculars at the sun, and the small end at a white surface, preferably leaning so it's perpendicular to the sun. I don't know if binocular projection will give a big enough image to show Mercury, so a very smooth and white background, tilted so it's perpendicular to the sun, will help. (Don't be tempted to stick eclipse glasses in front of a binocular or telescope and look through the eyepiece! Stick to projection unless you have filters specifically intended for telescopes or binoculars.)

Of course, a telescope with a safe solar filter is the best way to see a transit. If you're in the Los Alamos area, I hear the Pajarito Astronomers are planning to set up telescopes at Overlook Park. They don't seem to have announced it in any of the papers yet, but I see it listed on the Pajarito Astronomers website. There's also an event planned at the high school where the students will be trying to time Mercury's passage, but I don't know if that's open to the public. Elsewhere in the world, check with your local astronomy club for Mercury transit parties: I'm sure most clubs have something planned.

I was discussing the transit with a couple of local astronomers earlier this week, and one of them related it to the search for exoplanets. One of the main methods of detecting exoplanets is to measure the dimming of a star's light as a planet crosses its face. For instance, in 55 Cancri e, you can see a dimming as the planet crosses the star's face, and a much more subtle dimming when the planet disappears behind the star. As Mercury crosses the Sun's face, it blocks some of the sun's light in the same way. By how much?

The radius of Mercury is 0.0035068 solar radii, and the dimming is proportional to area so it should be 0.00350682, or 0.0000123, a 0.00123% dimming. Not very much!

But it looks like in the 55 Cancri e case, they're detecting dips of around .001% -- it seems amazing that you could detect a planet as small as Mercury this way (and certainly the planet is much bigger in the case of 55 Cancri e) ... but maybe it's possible.

Anyway, it's fun to think about exoplanets as you watch tiny Mercury make its way across the face of the Sun. Wherever you are, I hope you get a chance to look!

Update: A report from the transit: Mercury Transit: Comparing Between H-alpha and White Light.

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[ 11:36 Nov 08, 2019    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]