Heilig hosts mid-afternoon star party

Melissa Nie, Director of RubicOnline

Students flocked to the athletic fields yesterday, braving the biting cold to look through special equipment to catch a glimpse of Mercury’s transit across the sun.

“These transits of Mercury where it goes directly between us and the sun, they’re not very common,” US Science teacher Steve Heilig said.

The reason behind that? Mercury’s orbit is tipped very slightly relative to the Earth. When the Earth and Mercury wind up on the same side of the sun, Mercury is often somewhat above or below the plane of the Earth’s orbit. This only happens twice a year: in November and May.

“So if during November or May, Mercury is lined up with us in the sun, then, in fact, it will be right across the face of the sun. That’s why it just doesn’t happen real often,” Heilig said.

I’ll have to come back for that if I’m retired.

— Steve Heilig

Since looking at the sun isn’t a viable option, Heilig used a few special tools such as filters that block out so much sunlight that it is dimmed by a factor of 100,000.

“I’ve got filters that I put onto my big binoculars. Then you can use the binoculars and just look at the sun. Without the filters, of course the binoculars would be concentrating the sunlight. That would be terrible. You never want to do that. But with the filters on it’s perfectly fine,” Heilig said.

He also used a solar telescope, which only allows red light emitted from the hydrogen spectrum through.

“That’s a different way of dropping the brightness of the sun by a factor of 100,000 by simply getting rid of most of the spectrum entirely and just accepting that little bit,” Heilig said.

Despite all the special equipment, one had to squint to catch a glimpse of Mercury.

“To be honest, it was a really small dot,” senior Nathan Sobotka said. “But it was pretty cool, because we looked at the sun.”

Heilig teaches the Space Science elective, and one of the tasks for students was to watch this phenomenon.

“We have observation assignments, so we have to go out and Dr. Heilig gives us a list of things to look for. It can be kind of cold, which is the worst part, but he’ll also use telescopes and we get to see things like Saturn’s rings, and that’s pretty cool,” Sobotka said.

The next time people on Earth will be able to see Mercury cross the sun will be in November of 2032.

“I’ll have to come back for that if I’m retired,” Heilig said.

Missed the event and don’t want to wait 13 years? Check out these pictures and learn more about the science here.