On Monday morning, November 11, the planet Mercury will transit across the face of the sun and become visible as a small black dot as it passes between the sun and Earth.
The Washburn Observatory, 1401 Observatory Dr., is located at the peak of a hill overlooking Lake Mendota. But the planet's orbit is tilted compared to the plane of Earth's orbit, so most of the time, the tiny world passes above or below the sun's disk from our line of sight. Transits of Venus are rare, and there won't be another until December 2117. It's the same thing as an eclipse, except instead of the moon covering the sun, its a planet.
From anywhere in the country where skies are clear, Mercury can be seen crossing the sun with binoculars or a telescope. The next transit of Mercury will be in the year 2032, but it won't be visible here.
While the next transit of Mercury may be in 2032, Boyd said people living in the US won't have an opportunity to see it again until 2049. The May transit is often skipped.
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Mercury is the smallest planet in our solar system (sorry, Pluto doesn't count), so to watch the transit, you'd need special equipment as well as protection for your eyes. In fact, it would take over 190 Mercury disks to span a solar diameter!
One interesting sight to watch for during a transit is the so-called black drop effect, an optical illusion that happens when the planet either just enters or starts to leave the sun's disk. Mercury will pass in front of and nearly directly across the middle of the sun. In case of extensive cloud cover, this event will be canceled.
East Tennessee State University's Department of Physics and Astronomy will offer an opportunity for the public to safely view this rare astronomical occurrence, which will begin just after sunrise and end in the early afternoon on that day.
Because they orbit closer to the sun than Earth, Mercury and Venus are the only planets that can make solar transits from our perspective.