Mercury crosses Sun as bright planets converge in evening sky

The maps show the sky at 21:00 GMT on the 1st, 20:00 on the 16th and 19:00 on the 30th. (Click on map to enlarge)

With all the planets in view and a sky brimming with interest from dusk to dawn, November is a rewarding month for stargazers, particularly since temperatures have yet to plumb their wintry lows. Our astro-highlight of the month, if not the year, though, comes in daylight on the 11th when Mercury appears as a small inky dot crossing the Sun’s face.

Perhaps one puzzle is why such transits of Mercury are not more frequent. After all, Mercury orbits the Sun every 88 days and, as we see it, passes around the Sun’s near side at its so-called inferior conjunction every 116 days on average.

The reason we don’t enjoy around three transits each year is that the orbits of Mercury and the Earth are tipped at 7° in relation to each other. For a transit to occur, we need Mercury to reach inferior conjunction near the place where its orbit crosses the orbital plane of the Earth, and currently this can occur only during brief windows each May and November. This condition restricts us to around one transit of Mercury every seven years on average but there are wide variations. Indeed, our last transit occurred as recently as May 2016 while we need to wait until November 2032 for the next. We must hang around even longer, and travel beyond Europe, for the next transit of Venus in 2117.

This month’s transit begins at 12:35 on the 11th when the tiny disk of Mercury, only 10 arcseconds wide, begins to enter the eastern (left) edge of the Sun. The Sun stands 16° high in Edinburgh’s southern sky at that time but it falls to 5° high in the south-west by 15:20 when Mercury is at mid-transit, only one twenty-fifth of the Sun’s diameter above the centre of the solar disk. The Sun sets for Edinburgh at 16:13 so we miss the remainder of the transit which lasts until 18:04.

The usual warnings about solar observation apply so that, if you value your eyesight, you must never observe the Sun directly. Solar glasses that you might have used for an eclipse will be no help since Mercury is too small to see seen without magnification. Instead, use binoculars or, better, a telescope which has been equipped securely with an approved solar filter.

A few days after its transit, Mercury begins its best morning apparition of the year. Between the 23rd and 30th, it rises more than two hours before the Sun and shines brightly at magnitude -0.1 to -0.5 while 7° high in the south-east one hour before sunrise. Higher but fainter in the south-east before dawn is Mars (magnitude 1.7) which tracks south-eastwards in Virgo to pass 3° north of Spica on the 8th and end the period 11° above-right of Mercury. Catch it below the waning Moon on the 24th.

The Sun’s southwards progress leads to sunrise/sunset time for Edinburgh changing from 07:19/16:33 GMT on the 1st to 08:17/15:45 on the 30th. The Moon is at first quarter on the 4th, full on the 12th, at last quarter on the 19th and new on the 26th.

Three bright planets vie for attention in our early evening sky but the brightest, Venus, is currently also the first to drop below the horizon as the twilight fades. Blazing at magnitude -3.9, it stands less than 4° high in the south-west at Edinburgh’s sunset on the 1st and sets itself only 38 minutes later.

Second in brightness comes Jupiter, magnitude -1.9, which lies some 24° to the left of Venus on the 1st and sets two hours after sunset. Then we have magnitude 0.6 Saturn which lies another 22° to Jupiter’s left so that it is about 10° high in the south-south-west as darkness falls tonight and sets about 50 minutes before our map times.

Venus tracks quickly eastwards to pass 1.4° south of Jupiter on the 24th when it stands 6° high at sunset as it embarks on an evening spectacular that lasts until May. The young Moon lies 7° below-right of Saturn on the 1st, makes a stunning sight between Jupiter and Venus on the 28th and is nearing again Saturn on the 29th.

Vega, the leader of the Summer Triangle, blazes just south-west of overhead at nightfall at present but is sinking near the middle of our western sky by our map times. Well up in the south by then is the Square of Pegasus whose top-left star, Alpheratz, leads the three main stars of Andromeda, lined up to its left. A spur of two fainter stars above the middle of these, Mirach, points the way to the oval glow of the Milky Way’s largest neighbouring galaxy, the famous Andromeda Galaxy, M31.

Below the Square is the dim expanse of Pisces that lies between the distant binocular-brightness planets Neptune and Uranus, in Aquarius and Aries respectively.

Orion, the centerpiece of our winter’s sky, is rising in the east at our map times and takes six hours, until the small hours of the morning, to reach its highpoint in the south. Preceding Orion is Taurus and the Pleiades while on his heals comes Sirius in Canis Major which twinkles its way across our southern sky before dawn.

The morning hours, particularly on the 19th, are also optimum for glimpsing members of the Leonids meteor shower. Arriving between the 6th and 30th, but with a sharp peak expected late on the 18th, these swift meteors diverge from Leo’s Sickle which rises in the north-east before midnight and climbs to stand in the south before dawn. Fewer than 15 meteors per hour may be sighted this year, far below the storm-force levels witnessed around the turn of the century.

Diary for 2019 November

2nd           07h Moon 0.6° S of Saturn

4th           10h First quarter

8th           15h Mars 3° N of Spica

11th         15h Mercury transits Sun at inferior conjunction

12th         14h Full moon

14th         04h Moon 3.0° N of Aldebaran

18th         11h Moon 1.2° N of Praesepe

18th         23h Peak of Leonids meteor shower

19th         21h Last quarter

20th         00h Moon 4° N of Regulus

24th         09h Moon 4° N of Mars

24th         14h Venus 1.4° S of Jupiter

25th         03h Moon 1.9° N of Mercury

26th         15h New moon

28th         10h Mercury furthest W of Sun (20°)

28th         11h Moon 0.7° N of Jupiter

28th         19h Moon 1.9° N of Venus

29th         21h Moon 0.9° S of Saturn

Alan Pickup

This is an extended version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on October 31st 2019, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.