The little planet’s stopover between Earth and our Sun will last from 11:12 to 18:42 GMT. Scientists estimate that Mercury will not be seen making another transit until 2019 and later 2032. Not only is the event impossible to view with the naked eye, it is frankly quite dangerous. Global astronomy groups have provided many with the opportunity to view this rarity in a safe manner through filtered telescopes.
For those astronomy lovers lacking access to filtered telescopes, don’t fret. Live views from outer space as well as ground level telescopes will be available online. Mercury will show as a tiny black orb, much smaller though still darker than any sunspot, sluggishly navigating across the Sun’s enormous yellow disc. The tiny planet spins around our star every 88 days. However, its orbit is tilted relative to our planet’s. Due to this discrepancy, it is extraordinarily rare for the three heavenly bodies to align in space.
Mercury’s 7 ½ hour journey across the Sun will be fully visible from western Europe, north western Africa and a great deal of the Americas. The remainder of Earth will only catch a portion of the transit dependent upon their locations sunrise and sunset times. Unfortunately, Australasia, far eastern Asia and Antarctica will miss the event entirely.
Because of the miniscule size of Mercury which is only 1/3 the size of Earth and 1/150th of the Sun’s diameter, the upcoming sojourn will only be viewable via serious magnification. Even the “eclipse glasses” utilized by thousands during last year’s solar eclipse would prove useless for this event. In fact, all telescopes must be fitted with the proper solar filters prior to being trained on the Sun to prevent permanent eye damage.
Professor David Rothery spoke of the celestial event to BBC Inside Science, “From this transit, we’re unlikely to learn anything we don’t already know. But what a wonderful event for showing people Mercury. It’s a hard planet to see. Historically, transits were of immense importance.”
Actually, observations of Mercury and Venus making the trip across the sun during the 1700s allowed astronomers led by Edmund Halley to make observations that pinned down our current dimensions of the known Solar System. Two NASA probes have already visited the tiny planet: Mariner 10 cruised past in 1974 and 1975 and Messenger orbited for a total of 4 years before a planned crash landing in 2015.
Professor Rothery thoughtfully noted, “[Messenger] told us an awful lot. It really told us we don’t understand Mercury – because there’s a lot of things which just don’t stack up. It’s an airless body, with lots of craters… But there’s been a long history of volcanic activity, fault activity – and the composition, that began to be revealed by Messenger, is weird. There’s very little iron at the surface but it must have a ginormous iron core, because it generates a magnetic field – which Venus, Mars and the Moon don’t.”
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