I enjoy the night sky. I enjoy the day sky. The objects in the great overhead vault never cease to amaze me. I can usually recognize Jupiter and Saturn—always Venus and Mars—and I can identify a dozen or more constellations. Sunsets and sunrises are emotionally stirring and the milky way, our galaxy, sets my imagination reeling when I think of the billions of stars that comprise it.
Occasionally, some novel occurrence adds to the celestial splendor. A harvest moon swells two to three times its proper size. Meteor showers—the Perseids in August, the Leonids in November—add a different delight, keeping me from my bed until the wee hours of morning. More spectacular are the bolides, sometimes called fireballs, whose trails cover as much as half the sky. I can recall seeing two such objects.
There are other rarities. Lunar eclipses, sometimes called blood on the moon, are eerie specters. Then there are the comets. In 1997 there was the much touted Hale Bopp—overrated in my opinion—and Comet Hyakutake that loomed like a great heavenly ghost for several weeks.
This year offers two special blessings: the annular eclipse of the sun that occurred on May 20, and the transit of Venus that will happen next Wednesday, June 6. Here in New Mexico, where the air is some of the cleanest in these United States, the eclipse was spectacular. I have seen countless photographs of such events, so I wasn’t expecting much by way of excitement. Nonetheless, I was determined to actually witness one. I dug out a box that contains envelopes full of color negatives I will never make into prints, retrieved a dozen or so strips and divided them between my wife, Toni, and myself. We regarded the event through six or eight layers.
What was it like? I remember when, as a child, I first saw Steve Reeves, aka Superman, fly. I knew he was going to, yet when the actual moment arrived and wires hoisted him across my TV screen and away, I laughed and laughed, unable to contain myself. In much the same way, Toni and I babbled like kids as the orb of the moon devoured the sun, celebrating the moment when all there was left was the fabled Ring of Fire.
Next Wednesday’s transit will be an even greater rarity. Venus will be crossing directly between the earth and the sun. Depending on how early you rise and how clear the sky is, you may be able to see it as a small dot crossing the sun’s face. If you do, you will be among the last to do so for more than a century. Transits occur in pairs roughly eight years apart, then do not recur until between 115.5 and 121.5 years later. Although scientists calculate there was one interval of 169.5 year in BC 117,115. Boy! I bet they were on tenterhooks waiting for that one.
Next week’s transit, visible just after dawn, is the second of an eight year pair, so if you miss it, there will not be another opportunity until December 11, 2117.