Mercury is on the move, friends, and it doesn’t happen all that often. And you know what that means — time to get outside and “ooh” and “ahh” over one of nature’s great miracles. On Monday, our small planetary near neighbor will fly straight across the face of the sun in an event that happens just once every decade or so, and if you’re looking to marvel, things are happening fast.
— NASA (@NASA) May 9, 2016
At the onset of the event, the planet appears as a tiny black dot at the sun’s edge around 7:12 a.m. ET. It’ll take about 7.5 hours for Mercury to traverse the face of the sun, as it flies along at the pace of 30 miles per second. The issue, of course, is that you can’t really see Mercury’s journey (or officially, its transit) across the sun, partially because it’s so small, and partially because staring directly at our solar system’s great star will likely leave you with permanent eye damage. Luckily, NASA and other organizations have you covered — they’ll be live-streaming images of Mercury’s transit, and supplementing it with expert commentary.
Sky and Telescope will also be providing live coverage of the event.
So what’s the big deal with this transit? While Mercury moves between the Earth and the sun around three times a year, it rarely passes directly in front of the sun, allowing Earthlings a full view of the phenomenon. And more importantly, scientists watching the transit may be able to learn more about space and the universe at large, including potentially discovering exoplanets.
“It used to be hard to observe transits,” Solar and Heliospheric Observatory project scientist Joseph Gurman said in a press release. “If you were in a place that had bad weather, for example, you missed your chance and had to wait for the next one.” But now, with the advent of modern technology, it’s simpler than ever before for everyone to get their daily dose of science.
“Astronomers get excited when any two things come close to each other in the heavens,” said Louis Mayo, program manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This is a big deal for us.”