A Rare Transit of Mercury

A relatively rare event occurs in November, a transit of Mercury. Mercury passes in front of the sun from our perspective about 13 times a century. The Nov. 11 transit will be your last opportunity for 13 years, when the next transit of Mercury occurs on Nov. 13, 2032.

The Mercury transit will take several hours as the little black dot that is the closest planet to the sun slowly traverses the giant face of its home star. Because Mercury is so small in comparison to the huge, luminous sun, the only way you’ll be able to see the transit is with binoculars or a telescope and a solar filter. Which means, for most of us, the only way to see the transit will be through the help of a local observatory or one online.

Viewing the transit of Mercury through help from the professionals will be especially worthwhile for those of us who live in locations that don’t see much of the sun anyway in November. In the upper Midwest, November is often the cloudiest month, so viewing a livestream of the transit from a desert in Chile is not a bad option.

For those in the United States, the event begins in the morning as the sun is rising and ends approximately six hours later. The exact time and path Mercury takes across the sun will differ depending on your location on the globe. For example, in the Sauk Prairie area, the transit begins already in progress with sunrise at 6:47 A.M. and finishes around noon. On the West Coast, by the time the sun rises Mercury will already be halfway through its transit across the sun’s surface.

While November is a cloudy month for much of the United States, the lack of sunlight feels even more acute when we change the clocks back to Standard Time. Daylight saving time ends on Nov. 3, meaning local sunrise jumps from 7:35 A.M. on the second to 6:37 A.M. on the third and sunset swings from 5:48 P.M. on one day to 4:47 P.M. the following day.

An Asteroid at Opposition

Vesta reaches opposition this month, visible all night long on Nov. 12. At magnitude 6.5, this asteroid is easiest seen through binoculars when it’s close by another star or easily identifiable object.

Keep reading for FREE!
Enjoy more articles by signing up or logging in. No credit card required.

Try spotting Vesta on Nov. 5 or 6 when the asteroid passes less than half a degree from Omicron Tauri. To find the star Omicron Tauri, use the V-shape of the Hyades to point the way to a magnitude three star straight out from the “nose” of Taurus. Omicron Tauri is actually closer to the tail of Cetus the Whale than the head of Taurus. Use binoculars or a telescope on Nov. 5 and 6 and watch the dot of light right next to Omicron Tauri that changes positions from one night to the next.

The absolute easiest time to see dim objects like asteroids, Uranus, or Neptune are when they’re close to unmistakable objects. If you want to be sure you’re spotting Vesta, mark your calendar for 4 a.m. Aug. 3, 2020, and look for Mercury rising in the east-northeast before sunrise. The bright magnitude negative one planet will be a cinch to find. Use binoculars and look exactly above the planet to spy Vesta. At this date it will be farther from Earth, however, resulting in it shining at only magnitude 8.3.

Two Meteor Showers, the Moon, and Planets

November hosts both the Northern Taurid Meteor Shower and the Leonid Meteor Shower. The Northern Taurids are fairly quiet and peak from Nov. 10–11, while the Leonids will be most active from Nov. 17–18. With the Full Moon occurring on Nov. 12, both of these meteor showers will be impacted by moonlight.

The Full Moon will rise in Taurus not far from the Pleiades star cluster on Nov. 12. The next night the moon will be close to reddish Aldebaran in Taurus.

The moon starts the month on Nov. 1 not far from Saturn and will visit the Ringed Planet once again on the Nov. 29, both times in the early evening as a crescent shape. The predawn hours of Nov. 24 will find Mars to one side of an old moon with Mercury below. For those with flat horizons to the west-northwest who want to challenge themselves, look in this direction as soon as the sun has set on Nov. 27-28 to try to spot a young crescent moon by Jupiter and Venus. On Nov. 27 the moon will be closer to the horizon than the planetary pair, while on Nov. 28 the moon will have risen above Venus and Jupiter.

Venus is the brighter of the two planets at magnitude -3.9 and Jupiter shines at -1.8. For a more difficult challenge than finding them by the moon, find them at their closest together, on Nov. 23-24, when the pair lies approximately 1.5 degrees apart. Venus started the month lower than Jupiter but it leaps upward, passing Jupiter on the last full weekend of November. Venus will continue upward to meet up with Saturn in December, while Jupiter sinks toward the sun and the horizon.

Kelly Kizer Whitt fell in love with astronomy while a student at Sauk Prairie High School, earned her degree at UW-Madison and shares her love with this column.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

We welcome reader interaction. What are your questions about this article? Do you have an idea to share? Please stick to the topic and maintain a respectful attitude toward other participants. (You can help: Use the 'Report' link to let us know of off-topic or offensive posts.)