The image at the left shows the predicted positions of Mercury against an AIA 193 Å image from 1414 UTC May 8, 2016. The black circles are about the size of Mercury and are spaced 30 minutes apart. There are no sunspots along the path of Mercury and only a few areas of strong magnetic field (the bright regions in this image). Only active region 12542 has a noticeable area and it is at 11° N, well above the path of Mercury. The corona is also smaller than it has been, meaning Mercury will come into view in the EUV images less than an hour before 1st contact. Although we will be taking images all the time, the special modes will start 45 minutes before 1st contact and end 45 minutes after 4th contact.
Along with the full-disk view of the Sun we will provide several zoomed views. These views are shown by the boxes that are drawn on the image. You can also see that the EUV telescopes will see Mercury blocking the corona before it moves onto the disk. All of the boxes are built in a 16x9 ratio that nicely fits into an 1080p screen.
- The Ingress box will show the images from when Mercury moves over the edge of the Sun at the beginning of the transit. This includes 1st and 2nd contact (when Mercury firsts touches the edge of the Sun and when Mercury moves completely onto the Sun in visible light.) It will also show Mercury against the corona of the Sun before 1st contact in the EUV channels;
- The Tracking box will follow Mercury as it moves across the disk;
- The Egress box images will show the data when Mercury moves into that box as it exits the Sun. It will not be available until about 1730 UTC. This box will show 3rd and 4th contact (when Mercury starts leaving the disk of the of Sun and the last instant it touches the edge of the Sun, again in visible light);
- The Full Passage box will be updated throughout the transit so that you can watch the entire path of Mercury across the Sun.
Each view is available as a self-updating movie, by clicking on the picture shown on the website, and as an mp4 movie, which can be seen by clicking on the View/Download mp4 button below the image. Depending on its settings, your browser will either show the movie or download it. The mp4 movies will also be regularly updated as new images arrive, but are not automatically updated on your browser.
Transits were important for two developments in astronomy, that Kepler's theory using ellipses for planetary orbits was better than the Ptolemaic theory and fixing the size of the solar system. Transits of Mercury and Venus can happen because they are the two planets that orbit between the Earth and the Sun. By using ellipses to describe the orbits of the planets Kepler was able to predict when transits would occur. The Ptolemaic theory that used circular orbits did not have the accuracy needed to do predict these events, even after epicycles and equants were introduced. In 1627, Kepler predicted that a transit of Mercury would occur on November 7, 1631. Pierre Gassendi watched from his Paris observatory and saw a small black dot move across the face of the Sun on that day. A real triumph for the Kepler calculations!
Later transits, especially of Venus, would be used to measure the distance between the Earth and the Sun — the astronomical unit that we now know is 149,597,870,700 meters (or 92.75 million miles).
But on May 9, 2016, we celebrate the success of Kepler's ideas. As we watch Mercury move across the Sun, you could also remember our successes in using Kepler's ideas to slingshot the Voyager spacecraft through a Grand Tour of the outer planets, or to use Jupiter to send the Ulysses spacecraft high above the poles of the Sun, or even the incredible accuracy of GPS positions we take for granted as we move about in our everyday lives.
You can safely watch the transit at http://mercurytransit.gsfc.nasa.gov. My thanks to the SDO scientists, engineers, and web programmers that make this SDO Data Event possible.
Always use sun-safe optics to look at the Sun.