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Nov 4, 2019 3:05 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Earthlings Can View A Rare Celestial Event Which Happens Only 13 Times A Century

The 20-inch Meade RCX 400 telescope at the Montauk Observatory at the Ross School.  ELIZABETH VESPE
Nov 5, 2019 1:27 PM


Through the Montauk Observatory’s 20-inch Meade RCX 400 telescope, budding astronomers will be able to view Mercury in transit on Monday, November 11, from 10 a.m. until noon — a rare celestial occurrence that won’t happen again until 2032.

Mercury will appear as a tiny black dot moving across the sun, Montauk Observatory senior educator and NASA Solar System Ambassador, William Francis Taylor, said on Monday.

The last time Mercury was in transit and could be viewed as a silhouette over the sun was in May 2016. After Monday, it won’t happen again until 2032.

When a planet is in transit, it crosses between the Earth and the sun while it orbits; almost like a small-scale lunar eclipse.

The transit of Mercury will happen between 7:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Monday.

Only two planets — Mercury and Venus — are closer to the sun than the Earth, and can be seen by earthlings in their orbital pattern passing the only star in our solar system, the sun.

Venus transits are even more rare, the last was in 2012, and the next won’t be until 2117.

Transits of Mercury, when viewed from Earth, typically occur in May or November, and are much more frequent than transits of Venus, with about 13 or 14 per century, in part because Mercury is closer to the sun and orbits it more rapidly.

The last four transits of Mercury occurred on November 15, 1999; May 7, 2003; November 8, 2006; and May 9, 2016. The next set will occur on Monday, November 11, and then on November 13, 2032.

The last transit of Venus was on June 5, 2012, and was the last Venus transit of the 21st century. The prior transit took place on June 8, 2004. The previous pair of transits were in December 1874 and December 1882. The next transit of Venus will take place on December 10, 2117.

In the 1600s, not long after the telescope was first invented, scientists observed Mercury pass over the sun. It allowed scientists to accurately understand and measure the distance between the sun and the Earth, and gave them a sense of the size of the solar system, which wasn’t known at the time.

Over 400 years later, scientists now use precision radar to measure the distance between the Earth and sun. However, Mr. Taylor said the transit of Mercury still gives astronomers opportunities to study exospheres, the outermost portion of a planet’s atmosphere, and exoplanets, planets outside our solar system.

The celestial event can be seen only through special telescopes with a certain filter designed to look at the sun safely, Mr. Taylor explained, adding that solar eclipse glasses won’t work to see Mercury.

Through the observatory’s large-scale telescope, guests will see the disk of the sun and a “tiny black dot,” Mr. Taylor said.

The 20-inch Meade RCX 400 telescope, housed at the Ross School on 20 Goodfriend Drive next to the tennis courts, is the largest telescope in a public observatory on Long Island, from which guests will be able to view the astronomical event.

The dome-shaped observatory shifts its position as the telescope is configured by a professional astronomer using a computer, to view specific locations in the sky. In addition, the observatory will have smaller scale telescopes for researchers and patrons to utilize, such as a Dobson telescope.

Donna McCormick, executive director of the Montauk Observatory, said that astronomers at the observatory will provide a safe look at the rare astronomical event and offer history and information.

“Mercury is very small in comparison to the sun. You’re going to see the silhouette of Mercury,” Mr. Taylor said. “It’s not a once in a lifetime thing, but it’s rare.”

The Montauk Observatory is a publicly supported New York State not-for-profit organization. The observatory brings free science and cultural programs to Long Island’s South Fork communities. In addition, an astronomical observatory that contains research-grade equipment is available for free and remote access over the internet by students, teachers, researchers and the general public.

No registration is required, and the event is free, however donations to help support the observatory are appreciated.

For questions or to join a mailing list for event notices, contact MontaukObservatory@gmail.com.

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