Looking For Vulcan

In Chapter 13 we will be examining another type of eclipse, a phenomenon known as a transit. This is when a planet or some other small body crosses our line of sight to a larger celestial object. Examples are transits of Mercury and Venus across the face of the Sun (Figure 13-1), or by the Galilean moons ofJupiter across the disk of that planet (Figure 13-5).

As will be described in more detail in that section, there was a problem in the nineteenth century with astronomers' observations of Mercury. The motion of that planet appeared to be discrepant, and a suggestion for the origin of this anomaly was that there was a small, unsighted, interior planet tugging Mercury along. That hypothetical intra-mercurial planet was labeled Vulcan, even though it had yet to be found. There had been reports that it had been seen as a dark spot cutting across the face of the Sun—in transit that is—but these claims were inconsistent and ambiguous. Many people confidently expected that it would be spotted during this eclipse. When the Moon hid the bright solar disk it might be possible to see this faint body, orbiting close to the Sun. At least that was the idea. The Boston Globe began a report that morning by stating: "This is the day when the inhabitants of a goodly portion of the American Continent are to be favored with the rare pleasure of an unobstructed view of Vulcan." Several of the astronomers who trekked to Colorado and Wyoming did so specifically with a search for Vulcan in mind. Just think of the fame that would be attached to the discoverer of a new planet. Wishful thinking led to a couple of claimed sightings, but in the end it all came to naught. The reason why will be discovered in Chapter 13.

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