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Solar Orbiter captures incredible video of Mercury passing in front of the sun

Mercury’s transit will help Solar Orbiter scientist to calibrate the spacecraft’s instruments.

The Solar Orbiter had the chance to improve its observation of the sun as it watched Mercury pass in front of its typical target. On January 3, 2023, the transit of Mercury, which is the planet closest to the sun, presented an opportunity for the European Space Agency’s spacecraft to enhance its view of the sun.

Several instruments on board the Solar Orbiter, such as the Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager (PHI), the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI), and the Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment (SPICE), captured the transit.

In the PHI image, Mercury can be seen as a black disk located on the lower right-hand side of the sun. This small black spot is distinguishable from the dark sunspots visible on top of the star.

Rather than a still image, Solar Orbiter’s EUI instrument filmed a movie of Mercury as it moved across the face of the sun. The tiny planet, the smallest in the solar system, is particularly evident in the footage after it has left the disk when it is framed by the features of the sun’s atmosphere.

Mercury crossing in front of the sun’s disk as seen by the Solar Orbiter’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager. (Image credit: ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/EUI Team)

Mercury’s transit may have provided the most revealing perspective of the sun for SPICE. This particular instrument is engineered to break down the sun’s light into its component colors, which allows it to detect atoms in the various layers of the star, based on their respective temperatures.

By employing this technique, SPICE can identify the different layers of the sun’s atmosphere, providing a unique perspective on Mercury’s transit as it passed through them.

The ability to identify atoms at different temperatures provides a valuable insight into the sun’s composition, which can help to deepen our understanding of this celestial body.

“It’s not just looking at Mercury passing in front of the sun, but passing in front of the different layers of the [sun’s] atmosphere,” Miho Janvier, a space physicist at the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale in France and SPICE deputy project scientist, said in a statement

For Solar Orbiter, the transit of Mercury offered a valuable chance to calibrate the instruments.

“It is a certified black object traveling through your field of view,” Solar Orbiter Project Scientist at ESA, Daniel Müller, said in the statement. “That means that any brightness recorded by the instrument within Mercury’s disc as it transits must be caused by the way that instrument transmits light, a quantity called the point spread function.”

Mercury can be seen as a small black dot passing toward the bottom of the sun’s disk in this sequence of images captured by the Solar Orbiter’s Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager. (Image credit: ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/PHI Team)

The better astronomers understand the point spread function, the more effectively they can account for it and remove it from data. By studying the transit, the quality of Solar Orbiter data can be improved.

For centuries, astronomers have relied on planetary transits to gather important information. Even before the Solar Orbiter utilized the transit of Mercury, early astronomers used this method to estimate the size of the solar system. They would observe the transit from different regions and use the differences in timing to calculate the distance between the sun and Earth.

Today, planetary transits are still valuable tools for studying exoplanets, which are planets outside of our solar system that orbit other stars.

Mercury zips very fast across the bottom part of the sun’s disk in these video sequences captured by the Solar Orbiter’s SPICE instrument. (Image credit: ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/SPICE Team)

Exoplanet hunters can use the transit method to detect the passage of a planet by searching for slight decreases in light from stars. By observing these dips as they repeat, modern scientists can determine the size and orbital period of the planet.

This technique is especially useful in identifying “hot Jupiters,” which are massive planets that orbit very close to their stars and complete their orbits in just a few days.

In April 2023, Solar Orbiter will take advantage of its improved observational capabilities during its next close pass of the sun. Additionally, in June, the joint ESA/NASA mission will fly by Mercury, providing a better opportunity for observing the planet.

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