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Mercury just finished its passage across the sun, clocking in at 105,947 mph and 800 degrees
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On May 9, 2016, Mercury passed directly between the sun and Earth. This event — which happens about 13 times each century — is called a transit. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory studies the sun and captured the entire seven-and-a-half-hour event. This composite image of Mercury’s journey across the sun was created with visible-light images from the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager on SDO. Photo courtesy NASA.

Many people go a lifetime without seeing Mercury. 

That’s why Mercury’s passage across the sun on Monday, Nov. 11, proved quite the treat for those strolling in Gainesville’ downtown square. 

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Robert Webb, a retired astronomer, looks through a telescope at Mercury transiting the Sun, which only happens 13 times each century, on Nov. 11, 2019, on the Gainesville square. - photo by Nick Bowman

Robert Webb, an astronomer at Elachee Nature Science Center, set up two telescopes to give people a glimpse of Mercury’s quick journey. 

The next time people in the U.S. will be able to see this transit — the word for Mercury’s trip around the sun — is in 2049, Webb said. 

Since Venus and Mercury orbit closer to the sun than Earth, people can only witness this happen with the two blazing planets. And they really are blazing; daytime temps top out at a balmy 800 degrees on Mercury and a punishing 872 degrees on Venus.

Webb said this celestial phenomenon can be viewed from Earth twice a century with Venus and every 10 years with Mercury. 

“Mercury is the one major planet that most people never see because it never stays far from the sun,” Webb said. “It’s always low when you might see it in the night sky. Starting tomorrow it’s going to be up in the morning before sunrise, but the sky is already bright before it comes up.”

Mercury’s movement across the sun started on Monday around 7:30 a.m. and ended at 1:06 p.m.

Webb calls Monday’s phenomenon a syzygy, which is used by astronomers to describe the astronomical alignment of three or more celestial bodies. In this case, it involves the sun, Mercury and Earth.

Webb said by coming out to the square and showing people the passage, he aimed to put people’s lives on Earth into perspective. 

Peering into the eyepieces on the telescopes, people found themselves surprised that the tiny black speck moving across the giant yellow-orange sphere was Mercury in front of the sun. 

“I’m hoping to remind people that we actually live on a rather small planet ourselves,” he said. “If they compare Earth to Mercury, we’re not much bigger. We’re just a speck in the universe going around this average little star.”

As an astronomer, Webb is constantly reminded about his place in the world. He encourages people to not forget about how extraordinary their planet is.

“There’s nowhere else in our solar system where we can be breathing and get a piece of pizza and drink water,” Webb said. “All the things we need to live are here on this planet. It’s good to remind yourself that Earth is a special place.”

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Jason Devers, right, and Robert Webb watch Mercury pass between Earth and the Sun in the late morning on Nov. 11, 2019, on the Gainesville square. - photo by Nick Bowman
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