Rare chance to watch Mercury transit across the Sun from lunchtime today

This image of a tiny Planet Mercury transiting across the face of the Sun was taken on 7 May 2003 using a digital camera attached to an ETX90 telescope. Photograph by Jamie Cooper.  (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images) TiN-160405-i13223003
This image of a tiny Planet Mercury transiting across the face of the Sun was taken on 7 May 2003 using a digital camera attached to an ETX90 telescope. Photograph by Jamie Cooper. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images) TiN-160405-i13223003

The solar system’s smallest and most remarkable planet, Mercury, will cross the face of the sun today, Monday May 9 – offering a great opportunity for people in many places across the world to see it.

Mercury scoots round the sun in only 88 days, overtaking the more sedately moving Earth every three or four months. Because Mercury’s orbit is tilted at about seven degrees with respect to the Earth’s, it passes directly between us and the sun (a transit) only when both it and the Earth are close to the points where their orbital planes intersect. This can happen only in early May or early November.

In every century there are only 13 or 14 transits of Mercury and you have to be on the right part of the globe if you want to watch a particular transit from beginning to end, which usually lasts for several hours. The May 9 afternoon transit is perfectly timed for viewing the entire thing from Europe and most of the Americas.

Transit viewing

The May 9 transit will begin at 12:12 BST and end at 19:42 BST, which could hardly be more convenient for viewing in England - plus we’re due to see plenty of the sun in our region today.

The next transit of Mercury after this will be 12:35 to 18:04 GMT on November 11, 2019, but in the UK sunset happens well over an hour before the end. After that there’s a long wait until November 2032.

Unlike Venus, Mercury is too small to see against the sun without magnification, and it can be dangerous to try due to the sun’s glare. So the advice is to go to an organised transit viewing event – many astronomy clubs and universities are organising these. Another option is to view it online. The European Space Agency will be webstreaming live images from space (no clouds in the way) and from solar telescopes in Spain and Chile.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article