In the morning and early afternoon of Nov. 11, as students passed urgently from one part of the day’s business to another, Mercury traveled directly between the earth and the sun.
Some students, faculty and others observed the planet’s movement from the fourth floor terrace of Charles Library at the College of Science and Technology’s Mercury in Transit Viewing Event, which was held from 9:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
The viewing event, which was free and open to the public, was organized collaboratively by staff at the College of Science and Technology and Charles Library.
Mercury transits are rare. According to NASA, the last transit was in May 2016 and the next won’t occur until November 2032.
Jim Napolitano, the chair of the physics department and one of the event’s organizers, said that transits of Mercury only occur for a few hours about 12 or 13 times each century.
“All of the planets, they orbit in more or less the same plane, so you would think that they would all line up,” Napolitano said. “But the planets are actually tilted by a little bit and the sun is very small in the sky, only about half a degree, so almost never do the inner planets Mercury and Venus cross in front of the sun so you can see their shadow.”
Napolitano said that this transit would be longer as compared to others this century, as Mercury would be crossing in the middle of the sun from one of its widest points to the other.
“It was really something to see because you can never really just stare at the sun,” said Amanda Benson, a sophomore bioengineering major.
To be able to look at the sun and observe the transit, attendees used telescopes with solar filters, which reduced the intensity of the sun’s glare. Organizers placed signs at the event, warning attendees never to look directly into the sun.
“If you didn’t have the solar filter and you put your eye up there, it’d burn out your retina in an instant,” Napolitano said.
Jeff Martoff, a professor in the physics department, was in charge of the two telescopes at the event. One of them, the Coronado SolarMax 40, was meant specifically for viewing the sun while the other telescope had been modified with solar filters, he said.
Through the SolarMax 40, observers could catch a glimpse of usually indistinguishable “provenances” on the sun’s surface, which Martoff described as “those arching, flaring plasma displays that come off the edge of the sun, like you see on NASA TV.”
Chris Diaz, a freshman environmental engineering major, said he had looked through both of the telescopes and had been able to see Mercury’s silhouette clearly each time.
“Usually when people come they expect to see this blown-up picture and stuff, but all you really see is a little speck,” Diaz said. “But even in that, you can admire just exactly what you’re seeing.
The event also included other activities and exhibits, like solar system simulations through an interactive computer program, informational posters, and 1 to 4 billion scale sized models of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and the sun.
Barbara Fles, director of special events at the College of Science and Technology, said that the event was organized with the intention of appealing to all ages.
“We have families here that have learned about our event through Facebook because we did a lot of social media advertising,” Fles said. “And that gets those kids interested in science, hopefully, and maybe they’ll grow up and want to become an astronomer.”
Naomi Lawson, a senior chemistry major, said she came to the event after seeing a poster for the event in the library lobby.
“It’s really cool that we have the technology and the interest at this university to set up an event like this that allows me to see that,” Lawson said. “I could have seen it later on Twitter or whatever, but it’s different to see it in person and get to experience it.”