Space enthusiasts and Safeway shoppers alike had the opportunity to watch Mercury pass between Earth and the sun Monday morning thanks to the Vancouver Sidewalk Astronomers Club.
The club set up telescopes outside of Safeway locations in Hazel Dell and Salmon Creek to let people watch the transit of Mercury, which occurs roughly 13 or 14 times a century, according to the Associated Press. The next time it’s scheduled to happen is 2032.
The morning got off to a cloudy start at the Safeway on Highway 99 in Salmon Creek, where Tim Paterek of Woodland and Mike Reitmajer of Vancouver set up telescopes shortly before 8 a.m. With a few people hanging around, they watched as clouds covered the sun, hoping one of the pockets of nearly clear sky would line up so they could get a quick look at Mercury passing the sun.
Shortly after 9 a.m., they could see Mercury, briefly, and then it was clear again about 20 minutes later. Toward the end of their time outside, the sun shined through, and a crowd of more than 20 people took turns looking through the two telescopes.
According to the Associated Press, Mercury is 3,000 miles in diameter, while the sun’s diameter is 864,000 miles. When looking at the transit through the telescope, it was easy to miss the tiny, black dot engulfed in the vibrant orange background from the sun. It looked almost like a speck of dust on the telescope lens.
“We really lucked out,” Reitmajer said. “I’m glad we stuck around.”
So was Maryn Hanawalt, 8, of Tacoma, who was visiting her grandmother in Vancouver. Her grandmother saw that the event was happening and thought her space-loving granddaughter would want to check it out.
“I’ve loved space since I was 5,” Maryn said. “My grandpa worked for NASA.”
Maryn said the two telescopes were the biggest she’s ever used. Paterek brought his Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, a short, stubby one he prefers because people are less likely to bump into it.
“It has a set of mirrors inside that bounce light back and forth,” Paterek said. “It’s 20 inches long, but it behaves like its 5 or 6 feet long.”
Reitmajer had a refractor telescope with a 1-meter focal length, which he bought from Paterek. The two met at a Vancouver coffee shop, and Paterek started ripping on Reitmajer for his shirt, which read, “Back in my day, we had nine planets,” referencing Pluto being downgraded to a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union in 2006.
“There were eight planets and one masquerading as a planet,” Paterek said Monday.
The slow start to the day allowed for the two and their visitors to share stories about their love of space. Maryn said she and her family went to central Oregon to see the 2017 solar eclipse.
Sheldon Reich of Vancouver recalled working on an Army base in the San Gabriel Mountains in 1958 after growing up in New York City. He was on night duty, looked up and saw the Milky Way.
“It was like a deaf child hearing for the first time,” he said. “I was astonished.”
Paterek and Reitmajer are also members of the Rose City Astronomers based out of Portland. Reitmajer said his interest in space started with a visit to an observatory in eighth grade. He was gifted a telescope soon after, lost interest and then took the telescope back out a few years ago after seeing a bright yellow dot in the sky he wanted to investigate.
Paterek bought his first telescope in the mid-1970s, he said. The retired science teacher used to organize stargazing parties at Gaiser Middle School. When he retired, he sold much of his science equipment, including many of his telescopes. He doesn’t remember checking out the last time Mercury passed between the sun and Earth, so he was especially pleased he stuck around long enough, even when the forecast called for a cloudy morning.
“I was skeptical,” he said. “I almost decided not to come. I’m happy I did.”