Mercury to appear as tiny black dot in rare 'transit' across sun

When they pass across the face of the Sun as seen from Earth, we call it a transit.

These alignments depend on the ratios between the orbital periods of the planets, plus a smaller effect from the gradual precession of their nodes around the ecliptic caused by the gravitational effects of the other planets.

Unlike its 2016 transit, Mercury will score a near bull's-eye this time, passing practically dead center in front of our star. Transits of Venus occur in pairs separated by 121.5 or 105.5 years, with eight years separating each transit; the next transit of Venus will occur in the year 2117.

Read on to learn how transits contributed to past scientific discoveries and for a look at how scientists use them today.

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In most of the USA and Canada, and New Zealand, the transit will be in progress as the sun rises. Disposable eclipse glasses should never be used with binoculars and telescopes; magnifying lenses increase sunlight's destructive power and can melt eclipse glasses' flimsy filters, as demonstrated in a video shared to YouTube in 2017 by journalist and photographer Vince Patton. We'll set up in the plaza by the theater to be ready for viewers by 8 AM, and we'll stay until the transit is over at 10 AM. All telescopes with safe filters will be appropriate.

Johannes Kepler predicted that transits of Mercury and Venus would occur in 1631, but he died in 1630. Back in the 17th century, astronomers observed transits of Mercury to try to determine the distance between the Earth and Sun using parallax - observing the transit from two different places on Earth, as National Radio Astronomy Observatory astronomer Brian Koberlein wrote for Forbes. Because the planet is so tiny and so close to the sun, it doesn't block the sun's light, as the moon does during an eclipse.

A Mercury transit, as it's called, occurs only 13 times in 100 years, according to NASA, and it won't be seen from North America again for another 30 years, or from anywhere until 2032. Plus, find resources for engaging students in this rare celestial event! That knowledge is valuable to astronomers hoping to use the transit method to spot exoplanets around distant stars.

Come on out Monday morning and see celestial mechanics in action!

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