I wasn’t sure I was going to get to see today’s celestial encounter. The forecast was for blanket cover by early afternoon and the blue skies of the morning had largely filled with cloud by lunchtime, when the transit was due to start – 12:12 pm to be precise — this stuff runs like clockwork.
From the bus-stop I scanned the heavens with an anxious eye. There were still breaks in the clouds but a large mass of grey was moving in from the South. I willed the bus to arrive. Come. On.
The first one to do so was the 162 which dropped me at the bottom of the hill, a seven minute schlepp to our house. I climbed up the road, eyes up, watching as a large blue clearing drifted slowly towards the sun.
And then I was home, bag dropped, jacket off, back doors flung open. I lifted my 5-inch reflector telescope – primed for action yesterday – placed it gently on the patio and swung the barrel round and up, the motor whining at the effort. Aiming at the sun is easy because it’s really rather obvious, but tricky too because you have to squint right at it to make sure the telescope is precisely trained. By the time I was ready to peer down the eyepiece, switching the motor to fine control for the final phase of the hunt, splotches of green were dancing in my eyes.
But then there it was. The bright orb of the sun slid into view, already in sharp focus, and there, unmistakably (it hadn’t been there yesterday), was the tiny black disk of Mercury, to the right of a large sunspot (which had). With trembling hands – that schlepp up the hill had taken its toll – I grabbed my iPhone and snapped repeatedly. This is best picture I got in that first foray.
After a few more tries and experiments with different eyepiece lenses I got the picture below. Mercury’s disk is clearly visible as it transits across the blazing sun. The attenuation of the sun’s brightness by the filter, necessary to protect my telescope and my eyes, cools its appearance to a smooth, almost unblemished globe. But what a monster it is beside the tiny planet. Kudos to little Mercury for not getting swallowed up.
I know enough of such encounters not to spend them just taking photographs – it was the same with the transit of Venus a couple of years ago. I like to take the time to just look, to try to form a mental imprint – not least because the image in the viewfinder is sharper than any of my photographs. I want to remember this moment. So, in the breaks between the clouds over the course of about an hour, Mercury and I became acquainted. I had seen it before of course, a bright speck low on the horizon at sunset but this was different, more intimate. Against the glaring background of the sun, tiny Mercury revealed its form.
I was glad I had disregarded the weather forecast and taken my chances. Mercury will come round again in front of the sun in 2019 but that will be a November crossing, as will the following two in 2032 and 2039, with a much greater likelihood of cloudy skies. Today was perhaps my last, best hope. It is good from time to time, amid the distractions of work and city life, to meet with forces and phenomena that are far greater than any human enterprise, but on which we are utterly dependent.