A transit of Mercury or Venus across the face of the Sun, as seen from Earth, occurs at inferior conjunction, when the planet lies between the Sun and Earth. Because the orbits of both planets, like the Moon's orbit, are inclined to the ecliptic, these planets usually pass above or below the Sun. Also like the Moon's orbit, each planet's orbit intersects the ecliptic plane in two points called nodes; if inferior conjunction occurs at a time when the planet is near a node, a transit of the Sun can occur.
For Mercury these times occur around May 8 and November 10. November transits occur at intervals of 7, 13, or 33 years, while May transits occur only at the latter two intervals. On average, Mercury transits the Sun about 13 times per century. In the transit of Mercury that took place on Nov. 15, 1999, the planet just grazed the edge of the Sun. The Transition Region and Coronal Explorer (TRACE) satellite, an Earth-orbiting solar observatory launched in 1998, recorded the event in several wavelengths. Mercury's dark disk measured only about 10 arc seconds in diameter, compared with the Sun's diameter of 1,922 arc seconds. Transits of Mercury also have occurred or will occur on May 7, 2003, Nov. 8, 2006, May 9, 2016, Nov. 11, 2019, and Nov. 13, 2032. Observers cannot see Mercury's tiny disk against the Sun without some form of magnification.
Transits of Venus occur at its nodes in December and June and generally follow a recurrence pattern of 8, 121, 8, and 105 years before starting over. Following the transits of Dec. 9, 1874, and Dec. 6, 1882, the world waited 121 years until June 8,
2004, for the next transit to occur. Dates for successive transits of Venus are June 6, 2012, and, after a 105-year interval, Dec. 11, 2117, and Dec. 8, 2125. Unlike a transit of Mercury, a transit of Venus can be watched without magnification through a suitable dark filter or as an image projected on a screen through a pinhole lens.
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