Mercury transit: Scientists and stargazers gear up for rare celestial event

And Professor David Rothery, the Open University scientist who is closely involved with the BepiColombo which launched last year, has said the event which underline “what a strange little world Mercury is”. The transit will occur at 12.30pm, and will continue until after sunset, with Mercury appearing as a small, circular, silhouette that will progress across the Sun’s disc during the afternoon. Prof Rothery, who leads the European Space Agency’s Mercury Surface and Composition Working Group and is on the science team for BepiColombo, told “I’ve been working for 15 years on ESA’s BepiColombo mission, which was finally launched towards Mercury last year. 

“It will be great to see the silhouette of the planet that we are about to visit as it crosses the face of the Sun.

“It’s a fairly rare event (the next transit will be in 2032) and it gives us a chance to tell people what a strange little world Mercury is.

Prof Rothery, whose job involves making geological maps of Mercury in preparation for BepiColombo’s arrival, is regarded as the UK’s foremost authority on the solar system’s smallest true planet.

However, he admitted: “We don’t understand Mercury.

“There is more sulphur and chlorine than you’d expect on a planet that close to the Sun.

“Its surface is scarred where volcanic gases which have burst out in volcanic explosions, and in other places where the ground itself seems to have been vaporised and lost to space.”

Mercury, which is named after the Roman messenger god, takes 87.97 days to orbit the sun, the shortest of all the planets in the Solar System, with the last transit occurring in 2016.

Professor Mike Cruise, president of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), said: “This is a rare event, and we’ll have to wait 13 years until it happens again.

“Transits are a visible demonstration of how the planets move around the sun, and everyone with access to the right equipment should take a look, or go to an organised event if the weather is clear, or alternatively follow one of the live webcasts.

“I do want to stress though that people must follow the safety advice – looking at the sun without appropriate protection can seriously damage your eyes.”

The entire event is visible from the eastern United States and Canada, the south-western tip of Greenland, most of the Caribbean, central America, the whole of South America and some of west Africa.

In Europe – including the UK, the Middle East, and most of Africa, the sun will set before the transit ends, and so the latter part of the event will not be visible.

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In Europe – including the UK, the Middle East, and most of Africa, the sun will set before the transit ends, and so the latter part of the event will not be visible.

In most of the United States and Canada, and New Zealand, the transit will be in progress as the sun rises.

Observers in eastern Asia, southern and south-eastern Asia, and Australia will not be able to see the transit.

Every 88 years Mercury completes each orbit around the sun, and passes between the Earth and sun every 116 days.

Because the planet’s orbit around the Sun is tilted, it normally appears to pass above or below our nearest star.

A transit can only take place when the Earth, Mercury and the sun are exactly in line in three dimensions.

There are 13 or 14 transits of Mercury each century, so they are comparatively rare events, though each one can typically be seen over a large area of the Earth’s surface, the RAS says.

The organisation cautions that only a tiny part of the sun will be blocked out and that the event should not be viewed with the naked eye.

Looking at the sun without appropriate protection, either during the transit, or at any other time, can cause serious and permanent damage to the eyes.

On the morning November 11, UK amateur astronomical societies and public observatories will be running events where members of the public can safely enjoy the transit, as well as live webcasts of the spectacle.

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