The Transit of Mercury in Central Park

May 10, 2016

About a dozen times a century, the planet Mercury becomes visible to us as a silhouette when it travels exactly between the Earth and the Sun. This is called a “transit,” and it’s not too exotic: Venus does it, and of course so does the moon (except we call that an eclipse).

Mercury is the smallest planet in the Solar System and also the closet to the sun. It looks tiny out there. If you want to see it, you need some help. On May 9, the Amateur Astronomers Association set up a few telescopes at Bethesda fountain in Central Park and were on hand to answer questions, help take photos, and generally expand mental states as Mercury made an hours-long transit on a mostly sunny day.

Here’s some guy looking in the correct direction and seeing exactly nothing extraordinary.

And here’s the good stuff on a digital feed from one of the telescopes.

Transits slam home the fact that we live in a system, a precise dance of spheres. Perceiving a whole planet as an object is deeply weird; there’s a fragility about it, but everything is happening according to ironclad laws and the scales are unmanageable to a human brain. In all, a transporting experience.

AAA president Marcelo Cabrera was good enough give some interview and put things in perspective. By the way, do they make jerk astronomers? It seems not. Video below of the goings-on. If this kind of thing turns you on, you’ll have a chance to see a Mercury transit in 2019.