Locals witness crossing of the Messenger

The Celestial Observer

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Locals witness crossing of the Messenger“Last chance to see Mercury’s transit for 30 years!” After this alert popped up on my phone, I did two things — looked for a local opportunity to view the spectacle and researched the veracity of this claim.

The first was pretty easy. The generous volunteers of China Lake Astronomical Society, in partnership with the Maturango Museum, set up telescope and photography stations at dawn on Monday morning to allow the public a chance for a closer look.

A quick review of online frequency for these events showed this was the fifth such occurrence in 16 years. The next won’t happen until 2032. Well, that’s a pretty long ways away, but certainly not 30 years. Thanks to research help from another CLAS volunteer, though, we see that the 2032 and 2039 viewings will not be visible from North America. The next, for us, is indeed not until 2049. (I’m still not accustomed to associating those dates with my lifetime. And given that I would be in my early 70s by then, it’s entirely possible that it won’t be ...)

Rarity always makes a difference in how much effort I put into rearranging my schedule to bear witness to celestial events. (My Fear of Missing Out asserts itself almost exclusively in the astronomical realm.) If I had known on the day that the 30-year claim was not an overstatement, I would have dragged the kids along.

Instead, my husband and I joined a steady stream of visitors interested in taking advantage of the opportunity. After the sensory experience had passed, I fell into my habit of thinking about those ancient scientists and philosophers who looked to the sky for insight into the order and explanation of our universe.

Mercury, the nearest planet to our sun and the swiftest in orbit, was dubbed the Winged Messenger for his speedy laps across the sky. Early keen observers, logging the movement of stars and planets and comets with comparatively primitive tools, still blow my mind. I try to imagine an age before the advent of reliable almanacs, when humans

didn’t have text alerts to remind them to look up.

Then, I realize, maybe the absence of an authoritative prompt kept our ancestors’ eyes skyward more often. Given the humbling sense of perspective that comes with stargazing, maybe I would be better off disabling alerts and spending more time pondering the night skies without agenda or expectation.

I have a final confession to make. Sometimes the witnessing of these rare astronomical events do not live up to my wild imaginings. Although there were plenty of streaming videos that capture our fiery sun and the planet moving slowly across its surface, the view from the telescopes showed a mere speck on a tangerine surface.

I thought back to Jupiter in opposition last June, when the Galilean moons were visible by telescope against the giant planet. I had a similar feeling then. Somehow, even the amplification didn’t quite draw the intimate view I yearned for.

A moment of contemplation revealed I’m merely an Icarus — never satisfied by the lofty heights made possible by millennia of pioneers who have propelled us to staggering levels of human achievement.

I think I also pondered, back in June, whether my children or their progeny would live to see the day when humanity explores first-hand our wondrous planetary neighbors.

Now I suppose the real question is whether they will be contented with that accomplishment, or ever more hungry to see solar systems beyond our own.

Pictured: Dave Stewart looks through a telescope made by Keith Weisz (background). — Photo by Ken Sanger

Story First Published: 2019-11-15