Science

Searching the Sky: Mercury transits the face of the Sun

David Baumgartner writes about what you can see in the sky this November.

This article was contributed by community member David Baumgartner as part of a local series on astronomy.

If you go to the end of this article and look at the sky’s agenda for the month of November, you would probably think “what a dull 30 days of viewing the night’s sky.” But on the contrary. How about on the 11th looking at Mercury transit the Sun, at midmorning of all times? How about watching what could be possibly one of the year’s best meteor showers on the night of the 18th? (There’s an article on that coming later this month) How about staying up late and watching Saturn, which many viewers feel is the jewel of the sky? Not so dull of a month’s view after all, now is it?

In 2004, I was excited to hear that the planet Venus was going to transit the Sun. This would have been my first witnessing of a transit. When a heavenly body travels in front of another body, from our point of view, it is called a transit. But then I was disappointed to hear that the event was not going to be visible from our part of the woods here in downtown Hollister; I would have had to travel to the East coast just to witness a small portion of it.

But now, on the West coast we are privileged to witness a similar event: the transit of the planet Mercury across the Sun’s surface. The transit will occur with first contact on Nov. 11 beginning at 4:35 a.m. and will last for over five hours. Here on the West coast at 4:35 a.m., the Sun will still be below the horizon. We won’t witness the transit until sunrise when Mercury will be about midway on its journey across the Sun’s surface.

Mercury passes between the Sun and the Earth on rare occasions, only 13 to 14 times a century! That last happened on May 9, 2016 and won’t happen again until Nov. 13, 2032, some 13 years from now. I will be 91 years old if still around. I’m sure I will, probably still playing basketball in the daytime and looking through my telescope at night. That’s thinking aggressively, I know, but who knows?

One can always see Mercury early morning or evening reflecting the Sun’s rays. And this is why seeing this tiny planet crossing over the Sun’s surface is a gem of celestial views. Mercury won’t stand out as large as Venus did back in 2016, but it will be big enough to witness with the proper safety-filtered telescope. The total blackness of its silhouette can be distinguished from the dark gray of any sunspots that may be present.

And please don’t look at the Sun with your unaided eye to watch this transit, not even for a quick look. Leave that dangerous stunt up to Trump. The Sun’s rays can burn a permanent blind spot into your retina by trying to observe it without proper protection. You’ll need a safe solar filter over the front of your telescope, or you can project the sun’s image out of the eyepiece of a telescope or a pair of binoculars onto a white card. For details, see Sky Tonight’s “How to Watch a Partial Solar Eclipse Safely.”

During the transit of Mercury on Nov. 11, I will be setting up a couple of my telescopes to view this special event. If anyone is interested in catching a glimpse of the transit, call me at (831) 673-0299. I hope you can make it. I’m looking forward to the event.

November Calendar

11/2: Moon passes 0.6*degrees south of Saturn at midnight
11/2: Moon passes o.4* south of Pluto at 9 p.m.
11/4: First quarter Moon at 2:23 a.m.
11/5: Moon passes 4* south of Neptune at 9 p.m.
11/7: Moon is at apogee (251,691 miles from earth at 12:36 a.m.
11/8: Mars passes 3* north of Spica at 7 a.m.
11/9: Venus passes 4* north of Antares at 3 a.m.
11/10: Moon passes 4* south of Uranus at 8 p.m.
11/11: Mercury transits the Sun at 4:34 a.m.
11/12: Full Moon occurs at 7 a.m.

David Baumgartner

I am a local fella. Local schools from Fremont, Sacred Heart, Santa Anita, Hollister High, to San Benito Jr. Collage (Now Gavilan). Then joined the US Air Force where I specialized in Airborne Radar. Married my high school sweetheart JoAnne., shortly after three children arrived; Cindi, Michael, and Lisa. Somehow we ended up with nine Grandchildren.  Went on to San Luis Obispo, Guesta, Collages, and on to Univ. of New Mexico. Came back to Hollister. Opened up Three Pet Stores; Dave's Aquarium Pets & Supplies in SLO, Watsonvile, and Hollister. The family spent two and a half years running a ranch up in Oregon. Made our way back to Hollister.  Got my Real Estate Licence in 1982, opened my own office in 93'. In the mean time raised Swans and revitalized my old hobby of Astronomy.  In 2001 I was named Chamber of Commence Man of the Year. I think I was the only one nominated. I don't care, I'm taking it. Now in December of 2018 I retired. Not sure if I was forced out or not. Non the less, I am retired, at 77 years of age I think it was time. Now the last thing I have to do is buy a coffin. I hear COSCO sells them now. But the only drawback is; you have to buy them in lots of six.  I guess I could buy them for the whole family. Not that funny, but thrifty.