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Are there tools available for looking at what is unconfirmed in the mempool? Or is running a full bitcoin core node the best way to do that?

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There is no such thing as "the mempool". Every node has its own, and there are no guarantees about how consistent different nodes' mempools are with one another.

Hence, to even talk about a mempool, you need to have a node. I do not believe that any lightweight node implementations even maintain a mempool (as it's inherently pointless to talk about uncomfirmed transactions if you can't even verify them), so yes - you'll need a full node, whether your own or someone else's (e.g. some block explorer websites show you their mempool, but that is obviously trusting them).

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You can run this on your full node, stay private

https://hub.docker.com/r/mempool/mempool

or run

 $ bitcoin-cli getrawmempool true
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  • that requires having the whole blockchain downloaded. I am looking a LIGHT-WEIGHT way to look at the mempool (specifically unconfirmed txns).
    – patrick
    Jul 1, 2023 at 17:01
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    @patrick what you are asking for is to trust someone else's version of the Bitcoin chain. This is a security assumption that is not recommendable to anyone. You do not need to download the chain on to every device you want to query the mempool from. You can just run one node and then get mempool data from it via RPC such as developer.bitcoin.org/reference/rpc
    – Poseidon
    Jul 1, 2023 at 19:05

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