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Hal Kibbey
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Wednesday, November 1, 2006


Watch Mercury march across the sun's face

Nov. 1, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- November will offer a rare chance to watch Mercury cross the face of the sun as it passes from the evening sky to the morning sky. The next such event, called a transit of Mercury, will not occur until May 9, 2016.

Photo by: NASA


On Nov. 8, as seen from North and South America, the five-hour transit will begin at 2:12 p.m. EST (19:12 Universal Time) and end at 7:10 p.m EST (00:10 Universal Time on Nov. 9).

Mercury is 3,000 miles wide, but it will appear as a tiny black dot as it marches across the sun's face. The planet will be small enough that a telescope will be needed to see it. Be sure not to look directly at the sun through a telescope or binoculars unless an approved solar filter has been placed over the front end. Otherwise the bright sunlight will severely damage your eyes in an instant.

A safe alternative is to project the sun's image from the telescope onto a white card.

If weather permits, the Indiana University Department of Astronomy will open Kirkwood Observatory to the public on Nov. 8 starting at 2:15 p.m. A huge image of the sun will be projected onto the wall of the observatory, where visitors can view Mercury's transit until the sun disappears behind the trees. The department will also have telescopes set up for the public at the Sample Gates starting at 2:15 p.m., continuing until about 5:15 p.m. or until the sun is lost behind buildings in the west. The Sample Gates are located at the intersection of Kirkwood Avenue and Indiana Avenue. Kirkwood Observatory is one block south of that intersection, just east of Fourth Street.

The National Science Foundation will present a live view of Mercury's transit on the Web, as seen from Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. The coverage from Kitt Peak, broadcast on the Web by a mobile multimedia team, will include a live image as seen through a 16-inch telescope. There will also be live voice-over commentary at the beginning of every hour and interviews with astronomers on Kitt Peak. For more information and to watch the event live, go to This site includes a map showing the regions where the transit will be visible.

Extensive information on the transit is available from NASA at A sample of what the transit will look like can be seen at

After Mercury's transit, the small planet will become easily visible in the morning sky during the last half of November, rising more than an hour before the sun and appearing low in the east-southeast.

The only bright planet high in the sky during November will be Saturn, which will rise in the east-northeast around 11 p.m. local time at the beginning of the month and two hours earlier by month's end. Saturn's rings will be a fine telescopic sight when the planet is high in the southern sky after midnight. The bright white star Regulus of the constellation Leo the Lion will be a close companion of Saturn this month.

Jupiter and Mars will be out of sight behind the sun until the end of November, when they will emerge from the solar glare into the morning sky in the east-southeast shortly before sunrise. Venus will be on the opposite side of the sun from us in November, and it will return to the evening sky next month.

Meteor shower

The annual Leonid meteor shower will peak on the night of Nov. 16-17. Moonlight will not interfere, so there will probably be about 10 meteors per hour at the peak of activity in a clear dark sky.

The Leonid meteors, so named because they appear to radiate from the constellation Leo the Lion, are caused by streams of fast-moving dust particles from Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which rounds the sun every 33 years. After several years of unusually high numbers of Leonids, the shower should be closer to normal this year.

Watch for meteors after midnight local time as the sickle-shaped constellation Leo gets higher in the east. That is when your part of the planet will be rotating into the path of the oncoming meteors. The higher Leo is above the horizon, the more meteors will appear all over the sky. The bright star Regulus is part of Leo and can serve as a marker.

Light pollution wipes out many meteors for observers, so choose a dark site with an open view of as much of the sky as possible. Give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the dark. A lawn chair and blanket will help you stay comfortable as you watch the sky.

More information about meteor showers is available from the American Meteor Society at

Moon phases

The moon will be full on Nov. 5, at third quarter on Nov. 12, new on Nov. 20 and at first quarter on Nov. 28.