Mercury putting on rare show Monday with parade across sun

Rodiano Bonacci
Novembre 8, 2019

East Tennessee State University's Department of Physics and Astronomy will offer an opportunity for the public to safely view this rare astronomical occurrence, which will begin just after sunrise and end in the early afternoon on that day. Known as a transit of Mercury, this is the last time humans will see this daytime sky show until 2032. Safe viewing is paramount at all times-never look directly at the sun without proper protection or you risk damaging your eyes.

The priest presumed the small spot he saw was just a sunspot because he was expecting the disk of Mercury to cover about one-tenth of the sun, when in reality it appears more like one-hundredth the size of our star. From 9:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., ETSU astronomers will have telescopes set up on the athletic field adjacent to the Wayne G. Basler Center for Physical Activity on the west side of the university campus. The rest of North America, Europe and Africa will catch part of the action.

Mercury is 3,000 miles in diameter, compared with the sun's 864,000 miles. Periodic, fleeting dips of starlight indicate an orbiting planet.

Although there are 14 transits of Mercury occurring this century, not all will be visible from a given location on Earth. Mercury's unexpected small size would also eventually lead to a more accurate measurement of the distance between the Earth and sun.

Liberty Science Center in Jersey City is hosting a special event with a telescope set up for people to view the "Mercury transit".

One interesting sight to watch for during a transit is the so-called black drop effect, an optical illusion that happens when the planet either just enters or starts to leave the sun's disk.

Although the trek will appear slow, Mercury will zoom across the sun at roughly 150,000 miles per hour.

All this understanding was nearly delayed, though, when Mercury was momentarily written off as just another spot on the sun.

"Thankfully, he continued to observe for several hours and noticed that the tiny dark spot moved much faster across the face of the sun and along a different path than a sunspot would", writes Todd Timberlake, author of Finding Our Place in the Solar System. NASA's now retired Kepler mission was able to successfully identify and confirm 2,662 of these exoplanets across the galaxy using transit events like the one we will see up close on November 11.

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