Boise State Sets Up Telescopes To Watch Mercury Transit

May 6, 2016

Mercury is passing between the Earth and the sun Monday, an event known as a planet transit. It’s an event important to scientists that anyone with a special telescope can watch.

The Physics department at Boise State University is setting up filtered telescopes to watch the event.

Professor Brian Jackson says during the transit, the Earth will be in Mercury’s shadow.

“When you look at the transit of Mercury, what you’re going to see is a little black dot, very small, passing from the western limb of the sun, down to the southeastern limb of the sun and that will take a few hours,” says Jackson.

Jackson says no one should ever look at the sun with the naked eye. The special telescopes have filters that block out 99.9 percent of the light of the sun and will show the dot of Mercury moving across the surface.

Transits of Mercury happen about a dozen times each century. Jackson says planet transits have been used by scientists for hundreds of years to study the solar system. They played a huge part in the understanding we have today of our corner of space.

“And a transit of Venus in 1639 actually allowed astronomers for the first time to measure the distances between the planets and between the earth and the sun and showed us the solar system is enormous.”

Planets that transit other stars are called exoplanet transits. Astronomers use them to find new planets and study their atmospheres and compositions. NASA will be studying the Mercury transit to learn more about the planet.

The transit starts before sunrise and will continue until 1 p.m. The telescopes will be set up on campus at 9 a.m. near the greenhouses, across the street from the Brady Garage so anyone can safely watch the dark spot of Mercury move across the sun. The Physics Department will also set up a live feed from NASA of the transit from space in the physics building, in case of bad weather.

Here's NASA's take: