Teachable Moments | November 7, 2019
A Teachable Moment in the Sky: The Transit of Mercury
In the News
It only happens about 13 times a century and won’t happen again until 2032, so don’t miss the transit of Mercury on Monday, Nov. 11! A transit happens when a planet crosses in front of a star. From our perspective on Earth, we only ever see two planets transit the Sun: Mercury and Venus. This is because these are the only planets between us and the Sun. (Transits of Venus are especially rare. The next one won’t happen until 2117.) During the upcoming transit of Mercury, viewers around Earth (using the proper safety equipment) will be able to see a tiny dark spot moving slowly across the disk of the Sun.
Read on to learn how transits contributed to past scientific discoveries and for a look at how scientists use them today. Plus, find resources for engaging students in this rare celestial event!
Why It's Important
Then and Now
In the early 1600s, Johannes Kepler discovered that both Mercury and Venus would transit the Sun in 1631. It was fortunate timing: The telescope had been invented just 23 years earlier, and the transits of both planets wouldn’t happen in the same year again until 13425. Kepler didn’t survive to see the transits, but French astronomer Pierre Gassendi became the first person to see the transit of Mercury. Poor weather kept other astronomers in Europe from seeing it. (Gassendi attempted to view the transit of Venus the following month, but inaccurate astronomical data led him to mistakenly believe it would be visible from his location.) It was soon understood that transits could be used as an opportunity to measure apparent diameter – how large a planet appears from Earth – with great accuracy.
STEM Lessons for Educators
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After observing the transit of Mercury in 1677, Edmond Halley predicted that transits could be used to accurately measure the distance between the Sun and Earth, which wasn’t known at the time. This could be done by having observers at distant points on Earth look at the variation in a planet’s apparent position against the disk of the Sun – a phenomenon known as parallax shift. This phenomenon is what makes nearby objects appear to shift more than distant objects when you look out the window of a car, for example.
Today, radar is used to measure the distance between Earth and the Sun with greater precision than transit observations. But the transits of Mercury and Venus still provide scientists with opportunities for scientific investigation in two important areas: exospheres and exoplanets.
Some objects, like the Moon and Mercury, were originally thought to have no atmosphere. But scientists have discovered that these bodies are actually surrounded by an ultrathin atmosphere of gases called an exosphere. Scientists want to better understand the composition and density of the gases in Mercury’s exosphere, and transits make that possible.
“When Mercury is in front of the Sun, we can study the exosphere close to the planet,” said NASA scientist Rosemary Killen. “Sodium in the exosphere absorbs and re-emits a yellow-orange color from sunlight, and by measuring that absorption, we can learn about the density of gas there.”
When Mercury transits the Sun, it causes a slight dip in the Sun’s brightness as it blocks a tiny portion of the Sun’s light. Scientists discovered they could use that phenomenon to search for planets orbiting distant stars. These planets, called exoplanets, are otherwise obscured from view by the light of their star. When measuring the brightness of far-off stars, a slight recurring dip in the light curve (a graph of light intensity) could indicate an exoplanet orbiting and transiting its star. NASA’s Kepler space telescope found more than 2,700 exoplanets by looking for this telltale drop in brightness. NASA’s TESS mission is surveying 200,000 of the brightest stars near our solar system and is expected to potentially discover more than 10,000 transiting exoplanets.
Additionally, scientists have been exploring the atmospheres of exoplanets. Similarly to how we study Mercury’s exosphere, scientists can observe the spectra – a measure of light intensity and wavelength – that passes through an exoplanet’s atmosphere. As a result, they’re beginning to understand the evolution and composition of exoplanet atmospheres, as well as the influence of stellar wind and magnetic fields.
During the transit of Mercury, the planet will appear as a tiny dot on the Sun’s surface. To see it, you’ll need a telescope or binoculars outfitted with a special solar filter.
WARNING! Looking at the Sun directly or through a telescope without proper protection can lead to serious and permanent vision damage. Do not look directly at the Sun without a certified solar filter.
The transit of Mercury will be partly or fully visible across much of the globe. However, it won’t be visible from Australia or most of Asia and Alaska.
Mercury’s trek across the Sun begins at 4:35 a.m. PST (7:35 a.m. EST), meaning viewers on the East Coast of the U.S. can experience the entire event, as the Sun will have already risen before the transit begins. By the time the Sun rises on the West Coast, Mercury will have been transiting the Sun for nearly two hours. Fortunately, the planet will take almost 5.5 hours to completely cross the face of the Sun, so there will be plenty of time for West Coast viewers to witness this event. See the transit map below to learn when and where the transit will be visible.
Don’t have access to a telescope or binoculars with a solar filter? Visit the Night Sky Network website to find events near you where amateur astronomers will have viewing opportunities available.
During the transit, NASA will share near-real-time images of the Sun directly from the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Beginning at 4:41 a.m. PST (7:41 a.m. EST) you can see images of Mercury passing in front of the Sun at NASA’s 2019 Mercury Transit page, with updates through the end of the transit at 10:04 a.m. PST (1:04 p.m. EST).
If you’re in the U.S., don’t miss the show, as this is the last time a transit will be visible from the continental United States until 2049!
Use these lessons and activities to engage students in the transit of Mercury and the hunt for planets beyond our solar system:
Exploring Exoplanets with Kepler
Students use math concepts related to transits to discover real-world data about Mercury, Venus and planets outside our solar system.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Sun Screen: A 'Pi in the Sky' Math Challenge
When Mercury passes in front of the Sun, how much sunlight is lost on Earth? Students use the mathematical constant pi to find the solution in this illustrated math challenge.
Time < 30 mins
Solar Sleuth: A 'Pi in the Sky' Math Challenge
In this illustrated math problem, students use pi and data from the Kepler space telescope to find the size of a planet outside our solar system.
Time < 30 mins
Can You Spot Mercury?
Play science sleuth and see if you can spot Mercury passing in front of – or transiting – the sun in these images from NASA.
Oh, the Places We Go: 18 Ways NASA Uses Pi
Whether it's sending spacecraft to other planets, driving rovers on Mars, finding out what planets are made of or how deep alien oceans are, pi takes us far at NASA. Find out how pi helps us explore space.
- NASA near-real-time transit images
- Video: What’s Up – November 2019
- 2019 Mercury Transit Map
- Night Sky Network Events
- NASA Museum Alliance Resources
- Exoplanet Exploration Website
- Interactive: 5 Ways to Find a Planet
- Interactive: Eyes on Exoplanets
- Posters: Exoplanet Travel Bureau
- Video: What’s in an Exoplanet Name?
- Video: The Search for Another Earth
- Kepler Mission Website
- Kepler Education Activities
Check out these related resources for kids from NASA’s Space Place:
TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Students, Educators, Mercury, Transit, Transit of Mercury, What's Up, Astronomy, Resources for Educators, Exoplanets, Kepler, TESS
Teachable Moments | November 15, 2017
What’s a Supermoon and Just How Super Is It?
The term “supermoon” has been popping up a lot in the news and on social media over the past few years. But what are supermoons, why do they occur and how can they be used as an educational tool. Plus, are they really that super?
How it Works
As the Moon orbits Earth, it goes through phases, which are determined by its position relative to Earth and the Sun. When the Moon lines up on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, we see a full moon. The new moon phase occurs when the Moon and the Sun are lined up on the same side of Earth.
The Moon doesn’t orbit in a perfect circle. Instead, it travels in an ellipse that brings the Moon closer to and farther from Earth in its orbit. The farthest point in this ellipse is called the apogee and is about 405,500 kilometers from Earth on average. Its closest point is the perigee, which is an average distance of about 363,300 kilometers from Earth. During every 27-day orbit around Earth, the Moon reaches both its apogee and perigee.
Full moons can occur at any point along the Moon’s elliptical path, but when a full moon occurs at or near the perigee, it looks slightly larger and brighter than a typical full moon. That’s what the term “supermoon" refers to.
Because supermoon is not an official astronomical term, there is no definition about just how close to perigee the full moon has to be in order to be called “super." Generally, supermoon is used to refer to a full moon 90 percent or closer to perigee. (When the term supermoon was originally coined, it was also used to describe a new moon in the same position, but since the new moon isn’t easily visible from Earth, it’s rarely used in that context anymore.)
A more accurate and scientific term is “perigee syzygy.” Syzygy is the alignment of three celestial bodies, in this case the Sun, Moon and Earth. But that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easily as supermoon.
Why It’s Important
Make a Moon Phases Calendar
Use this Moon "decoder wheel" to see where and where to view the Moon all year!
As the largest and brightest object in the night sky, the Moon is a popular focal point for many amateur and professional astronomers pointing their telescopes to the sky, and the source of inspiration for everyone from aspiring space scientists to engineers to artists.
The supermoon is a great opportunity for teachers to connect concepts being taught in the classroom to something students will undoubtedly be hearing about. Students can practice writing skills in a Moon journal, study Moon phases and apply their math skills to observing the supermoon. (Click here for related activities from JPL’s Education Office.)
Incorrect and misleading information about the Moon (and supermoons) can lead to confusion and frustration. It’s important to help students understand what to expect and be able to identify inaccurate info.
What to Expect
As with anything that moves closer to the person viewing it, the supermoon will appear bigger than an average full moon. At its largest, it can appear 14% larger in diameter than the smallest full moon. Keep in mind that a 14% increase in the apparent size of something that can be covered with a fingernail on an outstretched arm won’t seem significantly bigger. Unlike side-by-side comparisons made in science and everyday life, students will not have seen the full moon for at least 30 days, and won’t see another for at least 30 more days. Comparing a supermoon with a typical full moon from memory is very difficult.
Leading up to a supermoon, there are often misleading images on popular media. A technique that involves using a long telephoto lens to take photographs of the Moon next to buildings or other objects makes the Moon look huge compared with its surroundings. This effect can make for great photographs, but it has nothing to do with the supermoon. In fact, these photos can be taken during any Moon phase, but they will likely be used in stories promoting the supermoon.
There are also images that have been edited to inaccurately dramatize the size of the supermoon. Both of these can lead students, and adults, taking pictures with their cell phone to think that they’ve done something wrong or just aren’t cut out for observing the sky, which isn’t true!
Your students may have noticed that when they see a full moon low on the horizon, it appears huge and then seems to shrink as it rises into the night sky. This can happen during any full moon. Known as the Moon Illusion, it has nothing to do with a supermoon. In fact, scientists still aren’t sure what causes the Moon Illusion.
The full moon is bright and the supermoon is even brighter! Sunlight reflecting off the Moon during its full phase is bright enough to cast shadows on the ground. During a supermoon, that brightness can increase up to 30 percent as a result of the Moon being closer to Earth, a phenomenon explained by the inverse square law. (Introduce students to the inverse square law with this space-related math lesson for 6th- through 8th-graders.) As with the size of the Moon, students may not remember just how bright the last full moon was or easily be able to compare it. Powerful city lights can also diminish how bright a supermoon seems. Viewing it away from bright overhead street lights or outside the city can help viewers appreciate the increase in brightness.
What Not to Expect
A supermoon will not cause extreme flooding, earthquakes, fires, volcanic eruptions, severe weather, nor tsunamis, despite what incorrect and non-scientific speculators might suggest. Encourage your students to be good scientists and research this for themselves.
The excitement and buzz surrounding a supermoon is a great opportunity to teach a variety of Moon topics with these lessons from JPL’s Education Office:
- *NEW* Observing the Moon (Grades K-6) – Students identify the Moon’s location in the sky and record their observations over the course of the moon-phase cycle in a journal.
- *NEW* Measuring the Supermoon (Grades 5-12) – Students take measurements of the Moon during its full phase over multiple Moon cycles to compare and contrast results.
- *NEW* Moon Phases Calendar and Calculator – Like a decoder wheel for the Moon, this calendar will show you where and when to see the Moon and every moon phase throughout the year!
- *NEW* Look at the Moon! Journaling Project – Draw what you see in a Moon Journal and see if you can predict the moon phase that comes next.
- Moon Phases (Grades 1-6) – Students learn about the phases of the Moon by acting them out. In 30 minutes, they will act out one complete Moon cycle.
- Whip Up a Moon-Like Crater (Grades 1-6) – Whip up a Moon-like crater with baking ingredients as a demonstration for students.
- Modeling the Earth-Moon System (Grades 6-8) – Using an assortment of playground and toy balls, students will measure diameter, calculate distance and scale, and build a model of the Earth-Moon system.
- Learn more about the Moon on NASA's Moon website.
- See where NASA is heading next on NASA's Moon to Mars website.
- Imagine a future in space with NASA's Moon to Mars posters.
For the record: This story originally stated a supermoon would be visible in January and February 2018. The two supermoons of 2018 are both in January.
TAGS: Supermoon, Moon Phases, Moon, Earth's Moon, What's Up, Astronomy, K-12, Educators