The 2016 Transit Of Mercury Happens May 9, And It's Actually A Super Rare Occurrence
Get out your telescopes and look to the heavens, my good friends, because drama is going down in the universe. The 2016 transit of Mercury happens on May 9, and it's actually a pretty rare occurrence. For the first time since 2006, Mercury will be visible as it makes its transition across the sun, a sky-gazing opportunity that only happens a handful of times per century. So, my fellow astronomy nerds, make sure you don't miss out on this when it happens.
Starting at 11:12 Universal Time (that's 7:12 a.m. EST, for those keeping track), Mercury will begin its seven and a half hour journey as it crosses directly between the sun and Earth, a phenomenon that only happens about 13 times every hundred years, according to Space.com. You won't be able to see the transit without the help of a telescope, but with the proper equipment people on the United States' East Coast, South America, Western Europe, and Western Africa will be able to see Mercury if they look toward the sun. (Very important side note here: absolutely do NOT look directly at the sun unprotected under any circumstances. Make sure that you have proper eye protection to filter the sun's rays.)
So what does a Mercury transit look like, exactly? If you do happen to find yourself safely parked behind a telescope, Mercury will appear as a tiny black speck that slowly scooches over the face of the sun until around 2:42 p.m. EST. (According to NASA, Mercury will hit its midpoint at 11:58 a.m.) If you don't catch it this time around, you'll have to wait a while before you get a chance to see it again. The next Mercury transit will be Nov. 11, 2019 — and the next one after that isn't until 2032.
The universe has been up to some pretty bizarre things this spring. As NASA points out, Mercury isn't the only planet on the move. On May 22, Mars, Earth, and the sun will align during what's called a Mars opposition, and on May 30, Mars and Earth will be closer to each other than they've been in 11 years. Definitely make sure you break out your telescope for that one — Mars will be brightest around midnight during the final week of May.
And that's not all the planets have been up to. Mercury is currently retrograde and will be until May 22, which has all kinds of implications for us here on Earth, if you believe in astrology. Mercury is the planet that supposedly rules over communication, which tends to go haywire when the planet is retrograde. Astrologists advise against making any travel plans, or entering any contracts, during this period for that very reason.
It bears repeating that you should not look directly at the sun during Mercury's transit (seriously, don't do this), but if you want to check out the action, you can do so from the safety of your computer screen. As Vox points out, there are plenty of places that will be streaming the event online. So, if you have nothing better to do, or are innately curious about the wild and wonderful solar system we call home, be sure to tune in. Isn't space kinda nuts?