Watch Mercury Glide In Front Of The Sun On Monday
I don’t know who needs to hear this today, but Mercury is about to scoot across the sun like a snail sliming over a leaf. Or, almost: the two astronomical entities won’t actually touch, but from down here on Earth, the time-lapse will look like Mercury cut a perforated path across this big yellow circle in the sky, as if to say “fold here.” This celestial event is called the Transit of Mercury, and it happens ~13 times every century. Conveniently for you, one of those times is Monday, November 11th.
Surely you will not want to miss your chance to see the messenger planet become a pimple on the sun’s face. If you do, you won’t have another shot at this action until 2049 (well, Mercury will transit again before then, but if you live in the U.S., you apparently won’t be able to see it again for 30 years), and who knows if the Earth will even exist at that point?
A transit like this one, according to Dr. Jackie Faherty — senior scientist in the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics — is simply “a planet getting in the way of the sun,” wedging itself between your eyeballs and the star you love most. This is neither rude nor intrusive, but astronomically significant. In olden times, planetary transits allowed early astronomers to determine Earth’s distance to the sun, Faherty told Gothamist; even today, they allow us to identify new exoplanets. “We can see the light of a star dim because a planet gets in the way,” Faherty explained. “If you didn’t know mercury was there, you could be discovering it right now!” The fact that this early method of deciphering the sky still holds, even hundreds of years later, serves as “a perfect example of science’s accomplishments,” she added.
“If you have any doubt that astronomers know what they’re doing, go outside at 7:35 a.m. and watch this thing happen at the predicted second,” Faherty suggested. In that respect, this transit is fortuitously timed: President Donald Trump, a notorious opponent of scientific fact, will be in town on Monday. Maybe it would be helpful if someone could just plonk him down in front of the sun as if it were Fox News? Although it admittedly feels ambitious to assume he might arrive at the desired conclusion. Still, he does love space, so you never know.
Anyway, if you also love space then you are in luck, because according to Faherty, we are perfectly positioned to absorb this spectacle over here in the Eastern United States. The show begins around 7:35 a.m. on November 11th, and concludes around 1:04 p.m. that day, meaning a full five-and-a-half hours of slow-burn entertainment for you to enjoy. (Unless, of course, clouds get in the way.) But just remember: “You can’t look at the sun ever!” Faherty warned. “That’s just one of those golden rules.” In this instance, it’s complicated by the fact that Mercury is a relatively small planet, and difficult to spot against the sun’s molten gut.
“The best way to see it is to magnify the sun,” Faherty advised, but don’t just grab your binoculars and stare straight into the sky fire!! Don’t do this even if you’re wearing eclipse glasses, because you could fry your eyes (Mercury is too small to spot with just eclipse glasses anyway). According to NASA, viewing the event through certified solar filters affixed to your telescope is the best way to go. Never stare directly at the sun, this has been a PSA.
If you don’t have a safe solar telescope, there may be a Mercury transit-watching event near you, hosted by local astronomers. In NYC, the Amateur Astronomers Association will be on hand with safely filtered telescopes at locations in all five boroughs. Another place to watch on Monday morning will be Van Cortlandt Nature Center in Van Cortlandt Park; details here. And if you prefer to experience your profound celestial events through a computer screen, there will be a livestream on NASA’s website here.