The challenges facing employment in the United StatesPrevious Article
Pope did not say hed ordain women deacons, spokesman saysNext Article
Breaking News

Seeing shadows

Line Spacing+- AFont Size+- Print This Article
Seeing shadows

Starting around 1:12 pm on Monday and
continuing until sunset, the unusual sight of planet Mercury passing between us
and the Sun can be seen (weather permitting!) by observers here in Rome and
wherever the Sun is visible during this event. (The transit ends at 8:42 pm
Rome time).

Of course, Mercury is so small and the Sun
is so bright that to see the transit you”€™ll need a telescope outfitted with
special filters. (Never look directly at the Sun, with or without a telescope,
unless you have the proper protection for your eyes!) What you would see
through such a telescope is the shadow of Mercury, a small black spot slowly
moving across the Sun”€™s surface.

Such events are called “€œtransits”€ by the
astronomers. They”€™re important for a number of reasons. For example, by
comparing the observations of a transit as seen from two different locations on
Earth you can eventually work out how many kilometers away from Earth the
transiting planet lies; that is how astronomers first measured the size of the
solar system in the 18th century. Furthermore, Mercury transits give us a very
precise way of measuring Mercury”€™s orbit. Such measurements first suggested
something was slightly askew with Newton”€™s understanding of the Sun”€™s gravity,
which was finally only explained by Einstein”€™s theory of General Relativity.

Mercury swings around the Sun every 88
days. But because its orbit is slightly tilted compared to Earth”€™s, most of the
time it appears from our vantage point to pass above or below the Sun, rather
than cutting across its disk. Thus, most Mercury orbits do not result in
transits. The next transit after Monday can be seen from Earth in 2019, and
then you”€™ll have to wait until 2032 to see it again. Venus also orbits between
us and the Sun; it has transits as well. But even compared to Mercury transits,
Venus transits are exceedingly rare. The last one was in 2012 and the next will
not occur until 2117. The farther the sun lies behind the planet, the less
chance there is that we will see the planet”€™s path cross the Sun”€™s disk.

There have been 55 Mercury transits since
the telescope was invented, some 400 years ago. At that time, Kepler with his
new laws of planetary orbits was able to predict when these transits would
occur; and in 1631 Father Pierre Gassendi, the noted French philosopher and
Catholic priest, was the first person to observe such a transit.

Why had no one noticed Mercury blotting out
a part of the Sun before then? Unlike the eclipses caused by the Moon, which is
so close to us that it can completely cover the Sun, these little Mercurian
“€œeclipses”€ cover only the tiniest fraction of the Sun, reducing its brightness
to us by only one part in 25,000.

Of course, transits would be easier to
notice if Mercury were much larger, or the Sun much smaller. And we”€™d see
transits more often if Mercury orbited closer to the Sun. That”€™s not the case
in our solar system, but in fact we”€™ve been able to discover planets orbiting
other stars in exactly that way. As expected, most of these planets are giants,
the size of Neptune or larger; and most orbit very close to their star. These
are the kinds of planets and orbits that are easiest to detect. So far, about
2000 such transiting planets have been observed.

To see smaller planets, closer to Earth”€™s
size, you would have to look for transits of smaller, dimmer stars. It takes
longer to get precise measurements from dimmer stars, so fewer stars can be
checked for planets. And since as we”€™ve seen it”€™s rare for planets to be lined
up exactly right for them to appear to transit their star, the planets would
likely need to be very close to their star. Even then, one would have to be
very lucky to actually catch such a transit.

But recently, the luck held for a team of
astronomers at the University of Liege, Belgium.

They and their colleagues at the Geneva
Observatory have built “€œTRAPPIST”€ “€” the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals
Small Telescope “€” in the desert mountains of Chile to make just such
measurements of small, dim stars. This past week, Michaël Gillon and his team
at Liege and elsewhere reported discovering the three planets roughly the size
of Earth around a star now designated TRAPPIST-1.

Even more exciting, all three planets orbit
close enough to their cool, dim star to have surface temperatures that might
make life possible there.

Discovering if they have life, of course,
remains still in the realm of science fiction. But the time is not far off when
we might be able to convert that fantasy into science fact. This star is only
40 light years away from us, close enough that perhaps in the next decade or
two we”€™ll be able to see if any of those
planets have atmospheres where we might look for gases produced by living

Watching the shadows of Venus and Mercury
in past centuries helped us understand our location in the physical universe.
From that, we know now that our star is not the only star and Earth is not the
only world. Likewise, watching for the shadows of other planets around other
stars will also shape the way we understand our place in the universe,
especially if we do find that our Earth is not the only home for life.

In both cases, it is interesting that we
are learning about these planets not by seeing them, but only their shadows.
The philosopher scientists of the 17th century, like Fr Gassendi, would have
recognized the echo of the story of Plato allegory of watching shadows in a
cave. The more we learn, the more we are humbled to realize how little we yet
know about God”€™s creation.

Guy Consolmagno


Vatican Live Video Feed

Pope Francis on Twitter