May 9, 2016 there was a rare event. The planet Mercury passed in front of the Sun. This is called a transit. Mercury sweeps around the Sun in 88 day, however because the Earth and Mercury’s plane of orbit are tilted from each other most of the time Mercury misses the disk of the Sun from our point of view. The last time Mercury transited the Sun was on November 8 2006. Now usually Mercury transits happen in ‘pairs’. So the one before the last one was only a couple of years before, May 7, 2003. That was when I observed and photographed (on slides) this first. The next one on November 19 2019 is therefore happening rather ‘soon’. When I woke up I saw a thick pack of clouds from my window. That didn’t look too promising. However, half an hour before the transit was over the pack was getting translucent. Then I tried something which I DO NOT RECOMMEND… photographing the Sun without a solar filter. (I repeat, Don’t try this at home. Leave it to experts). I focussed on an antenna far away and pointed to the Sun from my tripod. The result as shown here was quite remarkable. My estimate was right. The camera could handle the bright Sun within exposure/f-stop range (1/8000s, F22-29). I shot around 40 images before the Sun disappeared behind thicker clouds again. About 4-5 were remarkably sharp! Amazing considering the thick column of moisture in between. Moreover, without the filter I got detail in the clouds around the Sun and color too. Therefore, this image has a complete different feel to it than the standard transit picture. Nevertheless, Mercury is a TINY little dot compared to the Sun. Besides Mercury you can also see a couple of small sun spots.
As Earth is the third rock from the Sun, Venus, the second planet from the Sun transits too. This event is much much rarer than the already rare Mercury transit. Every 243 years a pair of transits happen. The last two were on June 8 2004 and June 5 2012. The next one will be in December 2117. That means it will be pretty unlikely you will be able to see one if you missed the last two. I was lucky enough to see both. In the image you see Venus on the face of the Sun, like the first image with Mercury. You notice that it is much larger than Mercury, albeit still a small dot.
OK, you might think, this is cool, but what can I see in front of the Sun which is not that rare? The answer: The Moon! … and it will give a much better show too! When the moon transits the Sun we call it a solar eclipse. Solar eclipses happen at least twice a year, but could occur up to five times in a year. Without having to travel a partial solar eclipse will happen where you live every couple of years. Last one in the US was Oct 23 2014, and in Europe on March 15 2015. Because the Moon is so close to us it appears to be about the same size as the Sun, therefore during a solar eclipse the Moon can ‘eat up’ a large part, if not the whole Sun. In the picture, you see a partial solar eclipse where the Moon has covered a significant fraction of the Sun. Don’t you agree, this is much more impressive than the little dots from Mercury and Venus?
However, once the Moon blocks the WHOLE Sun, then MAGIC happens. When all the bright light from the Sun is blocked you will be able to see the dim corona, which is a very hot gas around the Sun. During a total solar eclipse you will experience all kinds of different things which are impossible to describe. Besides the amazing show in the sky you will stand in the ‘dark’, feel the temperature drop, notice animals prepare for night, see a ‘360 degree sunrise’ around you from sunlight where the Sun is not 100% eclipsed etc etc etc. If you are not in the totality zone, the difference in experience is like night and day, or like almost winning the lottery.. So be prepared to go to the right spot. When? For people in the US, NEXT YEAR!!! On August 21 2017 there will be a total solar eclipse which will sweep from coast to coast in a approximately 70 mile wide band. I will write more about this event later, but in the mean time you can visit http://www.greatamericaneclipse.com/ for all kinds of information. I end this post with an image of a totally eclipsed Sun. Cheers