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Mercury Transit the Sun
May 10, 2016

On May 9, Stargazers have had a rare opportunity to witness Mercury fly directly across the face of the Sun, a sight that unfolds about once every 10 years, as Earth and its smaller neighbouring planet came into perfect alignment.

Mercury was seen through telescopes as a black dot inching over the face of our star, providing a celestial spectacle lasting seven-and-a-half hours.

Marking a rare astronomical event—the Mercury transit, the planet Mercury crossing in front of the Sun, was visible in India from 4.43 pm till sunset at 7.01 pm in Delhi.

  • This phenomenon takes place when the Sun, Mercury and Earth all line up and the smallest recognised planet in the solar system is seen as a small black dot travelling from one limb of the solar disc to the other.

  • It was the third such pass of 14 this century; Mercury will not make another transit until 2019 and then 2032.

  • The transit of Mercury was first recorded by French astronomer Pierre Gassendi. He observed it through a telescope in 1631, two decades after the instrument was invented.

  • German astronomer Johannes Kepler had correctly predicted that transit, but died in 1630 before he could witness the event.

  • The last Mercury lineup was 10 years ago, and the next will be in 2019, followed by 2032 and 2049.

  • The smallest recognised planet in the Solar System, Mercury completes an orbit every 88 days and passes between the Earth and the Sun every 116 days.

  • But its orbit is tilted in relation to Earth's, which means it usually appears — from our perspective — to pass above or below the Sun.

  • On an average, about 13 transits of Mercury take place in a century. The 20th century saw 14 transits and the 21st century too will see 14 transits. However, the 22nd century will see 13 transits. These are global numbers, with a single location on the Earth not necessarily having visible access to all the events.

  • The spot on the Sun’s face was seen from most parts of Asia (except southeastern parts and Japan), Europe, Africa, Greenland, South America, North America, Arctic, North Atlantic Ocean and much of the Pacific Ocean area.

In contrast, transits of Venus are very rare. There were two events in this century—in June 2004 and June 2012. The next transit of Venus will take place in 2117 and 2125.

Transits of Mercury are, however, not as rare as those of Venus, but not very frequent either. In recent times, the transits of Mercury took place in 2003 and 2006.The next transit on view from India will be in 2032.


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