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Movies, pics capture rare mini-eclipse

By Richard Stenger

Composite image of Mercury's transit across the sun from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory
Composite image of Mercury's transit across the sun from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory

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(CNN) -- In a striking celestial display, the planet Mercury crossed in front of the solar face on Wednesday, creating a miniature eclipse-like spectacle.

Mercury, the planet nearest the solar system center, began its transit at around 5:13 UT (1:13 a.m. EDT) and reached the other side of the sun more than five hours later.

Numerous ground-based telescopes and sun-watching satellites documented the passage of the planet, which looked like a small, perfectly round, black dot against the fiery face of the sun.

To see some sizzling online images and movies of the display, check out the Web site of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.

From our perspective, only Mercury and Venus make such planetary transits since they are closer than Earth to the sun.

Mercury does so about eight times a century. Venus does so even less frequently, fewer than two times a century on average.

"The last Venus transit was in 1882, so no one alive has seen one," said Fred Espenak, an eclipse expert with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

"Happily, there will be a Venus transit June 8, 2004, so this year's Mercury transit can be taken as an appetizer for the main course."

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