Mercury Transit

Both of the planets that orbit closer to the Sun, Mercury and Venus, can be seen to cross the face of the Sun if everything lines up just right. The last transit of Venus was in 2012. It has been much longer since a transit of Mercury, that last occurred in 2006.

Transit of Mercury
The 2006 transit of Mercury, photographed with a 90mm telescope and a Canon 20Da

In comparison the the rare transits of Venus, transits of Mercury are fairly common. There are 13 or 14 transits of Mercury each century, meaning there is a transit on average every seven years. On May 9th this year we have another chance to observe a Mercury Transit.

Photographing the Transit
Photographing the 2006 transit of Mercury from Tucson
Back in 2006 I took the day off work and photographed the transit from my backyard in Tucson. As a transit is a five hour event the effort to observe the entire thing takes a while.

Mercury is quite small with respect to the Sun. During the transit the planet will be a mere 12-13 arcsec across. Considering the Sun is about 1920 arcsec across, the planet will be a fairly small dot on the face of the Sun.

In some respects a transit is the clearest view of Mercury small telescope users are able to view. Normally observed low on the horizon, the innermost planet never gets far from the Sun. During transit a fairly sharp disk can be seen, far better then the mushy view offered near the horizon at sunset and dawn.

First Contact 11:12 UT 1:12 HST
Second Contact 11:15 UT 1:15 HST
Mid-Transit 14:57 UT 4:57 HST
Third Contact 18:39 UT 8:39 HST
Last Contact 18:42 UT 8:42 HST

2016 May 09 Mercury Transit
Unfortunately for observers in the middle of the Pacific the 2016 transit will begin well before dawn. It is only the last hour or so of transit that will be easily visible as the morning Sun rises into the sky. Viewers in eastern North America and Europe will have a better vantage point for this transit.

Please exercise caution when viewing the Sun! Use appropriate eye protection or indirect observing techniques to project an image of the Sun. The link at the start of this paragraph leads to a great discussion on viewing the Sun safely. As always the single best source on the web (or anywhere) for eclipse and transit information is Fred Espenak’s eclipse website at NASA. Stop by whenever you have a question on upcoming events as well as viewing and photography tips.

The next Mercury transit will occur November 11, 2019. This next transit also favors Europe as mid transit occurs at 15:20UT. For the next Venus transit? You are out of luck as it occurs in 2117, over a century away.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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