Finding Mercury

Finding Mercury

March 21st, 2017, 7:40 p.m. local time

Venus has been center stage in our solar system for the past several months, but in a symbolic bow-out, she has left the sky stage while her neighbors rise for their chance to shine this Spring.

Tuesday’s forecast said clouds and more clouds, so I was rather shocked when I left work to see a clear blue sky.  Even more alarming was that, during my train ride home, I saw absolutely no clouds to any horizon but the South.  This is usual, as some disturbance always seems to be lurking out West.

I knew that if this clear sky held, I would have a genuine chance to see both the descending, faint Venus and ascending Mercury.  And more to my surprise, as I got home and sunset approached, still no clouds were anywhere near the Sun.

Would this finally be the night I see Mercury?

I had been searching for Mercury on and off for seven months.  It is very difficult due to (1) too much cloud cover across the horizons and (2) few unobstructed horizon views in my neighborhood.

Last August, I thought I found Mercury, but after studying the star charts for those particular times, I concluded that what I saw was the ascending Venus.

First, I will note that Venus was sadly lost and I never found it Tuesday night.  Even though I scanned the horizon for Venus with my binoculars shortly after official sunset, I could not see any trace.  I believe that Venus had shifted North just enough to obscure my view behind houses.

As for Mercury, I was more hopeful.  Sunset was at 7:03 p.m. and I started scanning the skies about 20 minute later.  At first, I found absolutely nothing, which was a little disappointing given the super clear sky.  But as I scanned and scanned my Western sky, I gradually shifted my view up, and up, until I found a very familiar object…Mars! It was not yet visible to the naked eye but clear through binoculars. This was a great help, since I had studied my sunset star chart earlier and had taken note of Mercury’s relative position to the much-higher Mars.

I could still see nothing for about 10 minutes longer, though I now knew approximately where Mercury should be.  After 7:30 I was getting depressed, with no sighting yet and my telescope and camera at the ready.

And then around 7:35 p.m. it just happened.  Mercury popped out!  I had no doubt it was Mercury, though I was worried since it was so low already.  I guessed I had less than 20 minutes to take action before it was lost behind distant trees.  First, I threw off the x2 Barlow attached on my telescope, since I knew I would not have time to fiddle finding a zoomed image.  I also removed my polarizing filter.  I wanted to get as clear a view as possible.

So with my 127mm Mak-Cass and just my 10mm Plossl eyepiece, I pinpointed Mercury through my telescope.  It was a bright little dot.  I then put my polarizing filter back on.  I took both still images and video with my smartphone.

Unfortunately the video yielded very poor results, as Mercury was both too small without the Barlow and too low on the horizon to get a clear image.  It reminded me of my experience last year with Neptune, when those videos were bad as well but I still managed a passable photo or two, just to show evidence that I had found the eighth planet.

The top image is a good still shot of Mercury.  And this below shot was the very first one I took, with no filters on the eyepiece:

Clouds are in the forecast through Monday, but I will hope that sometime next week provides one more chance to see Mercury again.



I write frequently about astrophotography, technology advice, and my other interests like science fiction. I have over 30 years of experience in computer programming, information technology, and project management.

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