A recent internet home page feature article gave detailed instructions on seeing the tiny planet Mercury during the coming days. Mercury makes very few good appearances in our dark skies, and most people have never seen it. Included in the article were many little-known but fascinating tidbits about this tiny planet which is positioned only about one-third the distance from the sun as planet Earth. This appearance of Mercury is a particularly good one, but the viewer must rise well before dawn to savor it, owing to Mercury’s proximity to the sun. The article was a memory jogger for this former science teacher, reminding me of one of the most cherished memories I retain from my astronomy lessons.
Autumn was prime sky-watching time in northern New Jersey. For that reason, I offered the astronomy segment of my earth science course early in the school year. In September 1997, I encouraged my students to become “five-planet persons.” That meant they had made naked-eye sightings of the five inner-most, visible planets in our solar system, not counting Earth. Those planets are Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Saturn, and Venus. In a bulletin I sent to parents, I described the planet Mercury as “the last hurdle to ‘five-planet person’ status” and offered my help with an optional, live, early morning (5:45-6:00 AM) opportunity to see Mercury “and be sure you’re really seeing it!” from a high ground vantage point near our school.
About twenty brave early risers appeared at the school’s highest elevation in pitch darkness just after 5:30 AM. Bright Saturn was getting ready to set beneath the western horizon. The southeast sky was graced by the rich star field visible on autumn mornings, framed by what is known as “The Great Hexagon,” six bright stars in one of the most interesting regions of the sky. As if Saturn and the star field did not provide enough grandeur, we were about to witness two awesome events.
I had arrived armed with the exact clock times of the rising of both Mercury and Venus on that morning. Precisely on cue and according to schedule, we witnessed the slow ascent of the two planets above the horizon just minutes apart. I quote my brief log of the event: “We watched Mercury and Venus rise this morning 9/19/97. The hush and awe in the group of about twenty folks was palpable. Simple as the experience was, it turned out to be one of the best observations I ever offered.” For me and for the students and parents assembled, it was a very special moment of worship.