BY ELIZABETH SMITH
Join us at the Morehead Sundial on Monday, November 11, 2019, to view a transit of Mercury – a direct pass of our solar system’s innermost planet between Earth and the Sun. Another transit will take place in 2032, but the next one visible from North America won’t occur until 2049.
Morehead Planetarium will partner with local astronomers to host a public viewing of the transit from 11 a.m. to 1:04 p.m. (weather permitting) on Monday. Like our other skywatching sessions, this event is free and an excellent chance to chat with astronomy experts.
Mercury will begin its trek in front of the Sun at 12:35 Universal Time (7:35 a.m. Eastern) but remember that looking directly at the Sun without a proper solar filter may cause severe eye damage.
This transit is visible only through a solar telescope (or a regular telescope with a solar filter). Safe viewing equipment will be provided by our team as well as the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS) and the Raleigh Astronomy Club (RAC). Through the safety of the solar filter, Mercury will appear as a small black dot roughly 1/200th the size of the Sun in diameter.
However, we’ve got good news for anyone disappointed by the relatively underwhelming view of our smallest planet!
The sight of Mercury itself is a unique opportunity, as its proximity to the Sun makes it the most difficult planet to spot out of all the visible planets in the night sky. Nicknamed the “elusive planet,” even dedicated astronomers may only catch a glimpse of the planet on a handful of occasions.
Most importantly, the transit of Mercury exemplifies one of the most exciting topics in astronomy: finding planets orbiting stars other than our sun, or “exoplanets.” Using the transit method, telescopes detect a brief dip in the brightness of a star as the exoplanet blocks a tiny portion of starlight when its orbit passes between our line of sight and the observed star.
Notably, the Kepler Space Telescope confirmed the existence of more than 3,000 exoplanets with the transit method alone. Though NASA retired Kepler in 2018, projects like TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) continue to find new worlds - ranging from bizarre planets that orbit two stars at once to planets that have similar terrain to our home planet.
Endless possibilities await as astronomers study transit data from distant stars to map out a universe filled with extraordinary planets!
You’ll have to wait 30 years to see the next transit of Mercury, so join us at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center to witness firsthand this extraordinary phenomenon on Monday, Nov. 11 at our iconic Sundial in front of the building! More details available here.