A little above the Sun one sometimes sees, now in the West, in the lingering shimmer of the twilight, now in the East, when the tender roseate dawn announces the advent of a clear day, a small star of the first magnitude which remains but a very short time above the horizon, and then plunges back into the flaming sun. This is Mercury, the agile and active messenger of Olympus, the god of eloquence, of medicine, of commerce, and of thieves. One only sees him furtively, from time to time, at the periods of his greatest elongations, either after the setting or before the rising of the radiant orb, when he presents the aspect of a somewhat reddish star.
This planet, like the others, shines only by the reflection of the Sun whose illumination he receives, and as he is in close juxtaposition with it, his light is bright enough, though his volume is inconsiderable. He is smaller than the Earth. His revolution round the Sun being accomplished in about three months, he passes rapidly, in a month and a half, from one side to the other of the orb of day, and is alternately a morning and an evening star. The ancients originally regarded it as two separate planets; but with attentive observation, they soon perceived its identity. In our somewhat foggy climates, it can only be discovered once or twice a year, and then only by looking for it according to the indications given in the astronomic almanacs.
Mercury courses round the Sun at a distance of 57,000,000 kilometers (35,000,000 miles), and accomplishes his revolution in 87 days, 23 hours, 15 minutes; i.e., 2 months, 27 days, 23 hours, or a little less than three of our months. If the conditions of life are the[Pg 116] same there as here, the existence of the Mercurians must be four times as short as our own. A youth of twenty, awaking to the promise of the life he is just beginning in this world, is an octogenarian in Mercury. There the fair sex would indeed be justified in bewailing the transitory nature of life, and might regret the years that pass too quickly away. Perhaps, however, they are more philosophic than with us.The orbit of Mercury, which of course is within that of the Earth, is not circular, but elliptical, and very eccentric, so elongated that at certain times of the year this planet is extremely remote from the solar focus, and receives only half as much heat and light as at the opposite period; and, in consequence, his distance from the Earth varies considerably.
This globe exhibits phases, discovered in the seventeenth century by Galileo, which recall those of the Moon. They are due to the motions of the planet round the Sun, and are invisible to the unaided eye, but with even a small instrument, one can follow the gradations and study Mercury under every aspect. Sometimes, again, he passes exactly in front of the Sun, and his disk is projected like a black point upon the luminous surface of the flaming orb. This occurred, notably, on May 10, 1891, and November 10, 1894; and the phenomenon will recur on November 12, 1907, and November 6, 1914.
Mercury is the least of all the worlds in our system (with the exception of the cosmic fragments that circulate between the orbit of Mars and that of Jupiter). His volume equals only 5/100 that of the Earth. His diameter, in comparison with that of our planet, is in the ratio of 373 to 1,000 (a little more than 1⁄3) and measures 4,750 kilometers (2,946 miles). His density is the highest of all the worlds in the great solar family, and exceeds that of our Earth by about 1⁄3; but weight there is less by almost 1⁄2.
Mercury is enveloped in a very dense, thick atmosphere, which doubtless sensibly tempers the solar heat, for the Sun exhibits to the Mercurians a luminous disk about seven times more extensive than that with which we are familiar on the Earth, and when Mercury is at perihelion (that is, nearest to the Sun), his inhabitants receive ten times more light and heat than we obtain at midsummer. In all probability, it would be impossible for us to set foot on this planet without being shattered by a sunstroke.
Yet we may well imagine that Nature's fecundity can have engendered beings there of an organization different from our own, adapted to an existence in the proximity of fire. What magnificent landscapes may there be adorned with the luxuriant vegetation that develops rapidly under an ardent and generous sun?
Observations of Mercury are taken under great difficulties, just because of the immediate proximity of[Pg 120] the solar furnace; yet some have detected patches that might be seas. In any case, these observations are contradictory and uncertain.
Up to the present it has been impossible to determine the duration of the rotation. Some astronomers even think that the Sun's close proximity must have produced strong tides, that would, as it were, have immobilized the globe of Mercury, just as the Earth has immobilized the Moon, forcing it perpetually to present the same side to the Sun. From the point of view of habitation, this situation would be somewhat peculiar; perpetual day upon the illumined half, perpetual night upon the other hemisphere, and a fairly large zone of twilight between the two. Such a condition would indeed be different from the succession of terrestrial days and nights.
As seen from Mercury, the Earth we inhabit would shine out in the starry sky as a magnificent orb of first[Pg 121] magnitude, with the Moon alongside, a faithful little companion. They should form a fine double star, the Earth being a brilliant orb of first magnitude, and the Moon of third, a charming couple, and admired doubtless as an enchanted and privileged abode.
It is at midnight during the oppositions of the Earth with the Sun that our planet is the most beautiful and brilliant, as is Jupiter for ourselves. The constellations are the same, viewed from Mercury or from the Earth.
But is this little solar planet inhabited? We do not yet know. We can only reply: why not?