Catching Mercury

I could not have asked for a more beautiful or perfect day yesterday (weather-wise).  Crystal clear light blue skies and a light wind out of the southeast I believe.  I kept my fingers crossed most of the day.  Mid-afternoon I decided to call my father to see if he was interested in joining my Mercury hunting party.  I left him a voice-mail and went back to housecleaning for a couple more hours.  At five o’clock, I still hadn’t heard from him and tried calling him one more time.  He answered on the fourth ring.  He’d been splitting wood all day (not surprising) and hadn’t heard his phone ring or felt it vibrate and had not listened to my voice-mail.  I told him my game plan and that while I didn’t have a specific spot in mind, I planned to leave my house at a quarter to six and start driving west from Lansing in search of a hill with an unobstructed view to the western horizon.  He didn’t know if he could make it, but he would call me once he got back home, retrieved his binoculars and got in his car.

Setting Sun
Setting Sun (Sat 25 Feb 2012)

I took a slightly different path westward, eventually turning south on 187th street and finding a nice wide long pasture with a gravel road field entrance (and no gate) on top of a ridge with an unobstructed view of the entire horizon (not just the western one).  I had about five minutes to setup my camera and tripod before the sun kissed the horizon.  I took maybe three of our photos before my dad called my cell phone.  I told him where I was and he knew exactly the spot I described and headed directly to me.  He arrived just after the sunset and we began scanning the horizon with his binoculars, noting several water towers, silos and a very tall microwave communication tower silhouetted against the red orange glow of the sunset.

Just After Sunset
Just After Sunset (Sat 25 Feb 2012)

I told him we had at least thirty minutes before we would be able to see Mercury.  At that point, we could already see Venus and the Moon, both of them very bright and visible before the sunset.  Jupiter became visible to the naked eye about twenty or twenty-five minutes after the sunset.

Triad Closeup
Jupiter, Venus and the Moon visible first.

Using my father’s binoculars, we could see Jupiter’s four moons, although it was very difficult keeping the binoculars steady enough to see much detail.  Even though the wind was out of the south or southeast, it still cut through our jackets.  We used the van as a windbreak and dad got a blanket out of his car and we used that to help protect the camera from the wind when I started taking longer exposures.  Mercury became visible to our naked eyes about twenty or fifteen minutes before seven o’clock.  I took three shots, only one of which wasn’t blurry or streaked.

First Glimpse of Mercury
First Glimpse of Mercury

I spent the remaining twenty minutes trying to capture all four of the visible objects in a single shot.  Here are two of the best of the set of photos I took:

Clear Evening Sky
Jupiter, Venus, Mercury and the Moon (Sat 25 Feb 2012)
Three Planets and a Baby Moon
Three Planets and a Baby Moon

When you click on any of the photos above and are taken to my Flickr site, you can further click into the photo to get a larger better view and then further increase the size (even unto the original) by right clicking on it and using this pop-up menu:

Since we were both freezing by this time, I packed up the camera geer and headed back home.  Dad thanked me for the invitation and he headed north back to Leavenworth.  We can both check off Mercury from our observing goals.

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