In 1631, French astronomer Pierre Gassendi became the first person to glimpse the transit of Mercury, when the solar system’s smallest planet passes between the Earth and the sun, and appears as if it’s gliding across the star’s surface.
Passing between the Earth and sun isn’t an unusual feat for the planet. It does so every 116 days, according to the Royal Astronomical Society. However, it usually appears to pass above or below the sun.
Transits are much rarer, occurring only around 13 times per century, according to NASA.
On Monday, May 9, the transit of Mercury will be visible, according to the Royal Astronomical Society. The next two transits will occur in 2019 and 2032.
“The entire event is visible from most of Western Europe, the western part of North and West Africa, the eastern part of North America and most of South America,” according to the Royal Astronomical Society. “Most of the transit (either ending with sunset or starting at sunrise) will be visible from the rest of North and South America, the eastern half of the Pacific, the rest of Africa and most of Asia. Observers in eastern Asia, south-eastern Asia and Australia will not be able to see the transit.”
Potential observers should not try to view Mercury’s transit with the unaided eye. EclipseWise.com recommends utilizing a telescope with a magnification of 50x or greater, due to Mercury’s diminutive size compared to the sun. The telescope must be outfitted with proper solar filters for safety.
“It is always exciting to see rare astronomical phenomena, such as this transit of Mercury,” said Martin Barstow, the Royal Astronomical Society’s president, in a statement. “They show that astronomy is a science that is accessible to everyone, and I would encourage you to take a look if the weather is clear… but do follow the safety advice.”
On Mercury, daytime temperatures can be six times greater than the hottest temperatures on Earth, so sending humans there isn’t exactly feasible.
Humanity accomplished the first flyby of Mercury in 1974 with NASA’s Mariner 10. In 2011, NASA’s MESSENGER entered orbit around the planet. After four years in orbit, the spacecraft deliberately crashed into the planet’s surface.
The European Space Agency will launch its first mission to Mercury in 2018. The BepiColombo mission is expected to reach the terrestrial planet by 2024, and will gather information for one year.
R&D 100 AWARD ENTRIES NOW OPEN:
Establish your company as a technology leader! For more than 50 years, the R&D 100 Awards have showcased new products of technological significance. You can join this exclusive community! Learn more.