November sky puts on a show for star gazers

Emily Banks

On Wednesday, the planet Mercury will cross in front of the sun – a far rarer occurrence than a solar eclipse. But the average person probably won’t even notice.

Mercury will pass in front of the sun beginning at about 1:15 p.m., in what astronomers call a “transit.”

The planet won’t cross the sun’s other edge until after sunset in Minnesota, so the two will set together.

Mercury’s transit occurs about 13 times a century, said astronomy professor Lawrence Rudnick. The last Mercury transit occurred in 2003 and won’t happen again until 2016. The last solar eclipse was in September.

“(The transit’s) going to be visible from here, but difficult (to see),” Rudnick said.

The planet can be viewed with a small telescope with a magnification of at least 50 and a solar filter.

Mercury will look like a tiny dark spot across the face of the sun, Rudnick said.

The University’s astronomy department offers free public viewings of the sky on Friday nights on the Tate Laboratory of Physics rooftop, when the skies are clear and the temperature is warmer than 15 degrees below zero.

However, there won’t be a special viewing of Mercury’s transit.

Kisha Delain, an astronomy graduate student who works at the viewings, said a telescope on the deck and another under the dome in Tate Lab are usually available during the viewings.

“We usually show a constellation, and then we’ll look at whatever happens to be up at the time,” she said.

Shawn Carney, an astronomy sophomore, said he attended one of the public viewings last year.

WHERE TO GO

Star Gazing
WHAT: Department of Astronomy public viewings
WHEN: 8 to 9:30 p.m. on clear Friday evenings
WHERE: Roof of Tate Laboratory of Physics, 116 Church St. S.E.
For more information, go to: U of MN Department of Astronomy – Public Viewing

“They focused the telescope on different celestial objects, a couple different stars and a galaxy cluster,” he said.

Chance for meteor showers

On Nov. 17, graduate students working at the public viewing will likely point out the Leonid meteor shower, Delain said.

“It’s best actually to watch them without any aids,” she said. “Telescopes only show part of the sky and you want to watch the whole thing.”

The meteor shower will likely make an appearance Nov. 17-19. Depending on the strength of the meteor shower, it may be veiled by the city’s light pollution, making it difficult to see from campus.

Carney said he’ll be out of town during the meteor shower and plans to take advantage of being away.

“With less city light, it’ll be better there,” he said.