Too hot to handle? Mixed views of Mercury

More than 60 people viewed Mercury’s transit across the sun from Trinity’s Great Court on 9 May including the Master, Sir Gregory Winter, the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, a host of College staff and students, and members of the public.

Trinity Fellow in Engineering, Dr Hugh Hunt, who organised the viewing, said the level of interest was testimony to the magnetic attraction of planetary motions.

Yes, the pun is well made: many people are rightly fascinated by our incredible universe – and you don’t get to see planets orbiting the sun every day. Looking at Mercury on its once-in-a-decade journey across the sun does make you think about Earth in the huge context of the solar system.

Lord Rees and Stuart Leithes
Lord Rees and Stuart Leithes

Visitors used a solarscope and looked through a telescope to see a tiny black dot inching across a fiery orb. One student said:

It does look just like a spot but I think it is more the fact you can see something that’s so far away.

Mercury is the smallest and fastest planet in the solar system, travelling at 50 km per second. It is also the closest planet to the sun, with extreme temperatures. On its ‘sunny side’, Mercury reaches 427 degrees centigrade during daytime, plunging to -173 centrigrade at night.

Although Mercury’s size and distance make viewing challenging, Dr Hunt was undeterred. He experimented with reflecting images through blackout curtains hung across Queen’s Gate. It was an ingenious idea – courtesy of common or garden weed-control sheets – which ultimately failed due to mercurial climatic conditions in Great Court.

It was a sunny and very warm day and the heat radiating from the flagstones caused the reflected image to shimmer and shift, thus kyboshing viewing Mercury in this way. But it was worth a go – and thanks to Fellow Dr Claudio Castelnovo, whose rooms are in Queen’s Gate – for helping out with the preparations.

Local media including Cambridge News photographer David Johnson and ITV’s Stuart Leithes charted Mercury’s progress.

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