CU students will be able to view the first transit of Mercury across the sun since 2003 for free on Wednesday afternoon at the Sommers-Bausch Observatory, which is next to Fiske Planetarium.
The transit, a fairly rare astronomical event, will be visible from the western United States between about noon and 4:30 p.m. A PowerPoint presentation by Suzanne Traub-Metlay, education programs manager at the planetarium, is also free and will be offered at 1, 1:20, 1:40, 3, 3:30, 3:40 and 4 p.m.
Traub-Metlay said she expects the “first contact” to occur at 12:08 p.m. but encourages observers to arrive as early as 11:30 a.m. to beat the crowds. Faculty and graduate students in the astronomy department will be on hand to provide information and facilitate the viewing through the observatory’s 24-inch telescope.
“To those of us involved in the field, this is really one of the most exciting things on the face of the earth,” she said.
Transits occur when a celestial body moves between the sun and the earth, meaning that only Mercury and Venus have transits visible from earth. Transits of Mercury happen about every 10 years, and Venus transits are much more rare, according to Traub-Metlay. For example, Venus’ transit in 2012 will be its last for 100 years. The more common transit of the moon is called an eclipse.
Research on Mercury and Venus is rife with practical applications, according to Traub-Metlay. The transit of Venus, first observed in the 1600s, is credited with providing astronomers with concrete, rather than simply theoretical, proof of the distance between the earth and the sun.
A collaborative European and Japanese shuttle called the BepiColombo, which will launch in 2013, will arrive in Mercury’s orbit in 2019 and will provide the first concrete test of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as it relates to the sun.
CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) contributed technology to a mission called MESSENGER that launched in 2004, will fly by Mercury in 2007 and will be in orbit by 2011.
Research so close to the sun is particularly risky for shuttle operations.
“It’s wicked hard to fly past Mercury without falling into the sun,” Traub-Metlay said.
For more information, visit http://lasp.colorado.edu/science/planetary_phys/index.htm or http://lyra.colorado.edu/public/special.html.