The Great Transit Expedition of 2019


Blog Title

On November 11, I traveled to the near-flung corners of my backyard to observe the rare transit of Mercury across the Sun.

History is replete with tales of astronomers traveling to the far corners of the Earth to watch dark objects pass in front of the Sun — the Moon in eclipses, and Mercury and Venus in transits.

On November 11, to take in the last transit of Mercury until 2032, I had planned a trip to a location more likely to have clear skies in November than at home. A 3-day drive to southern Arizona was the plan.

But to attend to work and priorities at home I cancelled my plans. Instead, I decided to stay home and take my chances with the Alberta weather, perhaps making a run for it a day’s drive away if needed to chase into clear skies.

Transit of Mercury Selfie with Sun

As it turned out, none of that was necessary. The forecast for clear, if cold, skies held true and we could not have had a finer day for the transit. Even the -20° C temperatures were no problem, with no wind, and of course sunshine!

Plus being only steps from home and a warming coffee helped!

As it turned out, the site in Arizona I had booked to stay was clouded out for the entire event. So I was happy with my decision!

For my site in Alberta, as for all of western North America, the Sun rose with the transit in progress. But as soon as the Sun cleared the horizon there was Mercury, as a small, if fuzzy, black dot on the Sun.

Low Sun with Mercury in Transit

As the Sun rose the view became sharper, and was remarkable indeed — of a jet black dot of a tiny planet silhouetted on the Sun.

The Transit of Mercury Across the Sun (10 am MST)

I shot through two telescopes, my 4-inch and 5-inch refractors, both equipped with solar filters of course. I viewed through two other telescopes, for white-light and hydrogen-alpha filtered views.

I was able to follow the transit for three hours, for a little more than half the transit, until Mercury exited the Sun just after 11 a.m. MST. The view below is from moments before Mercury’s exit, or “egress.”

The Transit of Mercury Across the Sun (11 am MST)

I shot still frames every 15 seconds with each of the two cameras and telescopes, for a time-lapse, plus I shot real-time videos.

Mercury at Mid-Transit (November 11, 2019)

At this transit Mercury passed closer to the centre of the Sun’s disk than it will for any other transit in the 21st century, making this event all the more remarkable. That point is recorded above, from a shot taken at 8:19 a.m. MST.

Stacking a selection of the time-lapse frames, ones taken 1-minute intervals, produced this composite of the transit, from just before mid-transit until Mercury’s egress.

Transit of Mercury Composite Across the Sun v2

I assembled all the best images and 4K videos together into a movie, which I narrated live at the telescope as the transit was happening. I hope this provides a sense of what it was like to view this rare event.

The Transit of Mercury from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

We won’t see another until 2032, but not from North America. The next transit of Mercury viewable from here at home is not until 2049! This was likely my last transit, certainly for a while!

Transit of Mercury Trophy Shot

This was my trophy shot! Bagged the transit!

P.S.: For my video of the previous transit of Mercury in May 2016, see my blog post which includes a similar compilation video.

P.P.S.: And for tech details on the images and videos in this blog, please click through to Vimeo and the video description I have there of cameras, scopes, and settings.

Clear skies!

Alan, November 17, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

Mercury, Moon, and Mirages


Rising and Distorted Supermoon on New Year's Day

Happy New Year to all!  

New Year’s Day proved to be a busy one for sky sights from home in southern Alberta.

Clear skies and warming temperatures allowed me to capture a trio of sights on January 1: Mercury in the morning, a unique mirage called the Fata Morgana in the afternoon, and the rising Full Moon in the evening.

On January 1 elusive Mercury was at its greatest elongation away from the Sun in the morning sky. This placed it as high as it can get above the horizon, though that’s not high at all at the best of times.

Mercury in the Morning on New Year's Day
Mercury at dawn in the southeast sky.

I captured Mercury before dawn as a bright star in the colourful twilight, using a telephoto lens to frame the scene more closely.

At this time the temperature outside was still about -24° C, as a cold snap that had plunged the prairies into frigid air for the last week still held its grip.

But by the afternoon, warmer air was drifting in from the west, in a Chinook flow from the Rockies.

As evidence of the change, the air exhibited a form of mirage called the Fata Morgana, named after the sorceress Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend. The illusion of castles in the air was thought to be a spell cast by her to lure sailors to their doom.

Fata Morgana Mirage on the Prairies
A Fata Morgana mirage on the Prairies

The mirage produced the illusion of bodies of water in the distance, plus distorted, elongated forms of wind turbines and farm buildings on the horizon. The cause is the refraction of light by layers of warm air aloft, above cold air near the ground.

By evening the mirage effect was still in place, producing a wonderful moonrise with the Full Moon writhing and rippling as it rose through the temperature inversion.

As the lead image at top shows, at moments the top of the disk had a green rim (almost a distinct green flash), while the bottom was tinted red.

Here’s a short time-lapse video of the scene, shot through a small telescope. The lead image above and below is a composite of four of the frames from this movie.

Rising and Distorted Supermoon on New Year's Day
A composite of 4 exposures of the rising Full Moon on New Year’s Day, 2018, rising from left to right over a snowy prairie horizon in southern Alberta. This is a composite of 4 out of 500 images shot for a time-lapse sequence, layered in Photoshop. All were with a 66mm f/7 William Optics apo refractor and Canon 60Da camera firing 1/25th second exposures every 1 second.

This was also the largest and closest Full Moon of the year, what has become popularly called a “supermoon,” but more correctly called a perigean Full Moon.

A lunar cycle from now, at the next Full Moon, the Moon undergoes a total eclipse in the dawn hours of January 31 for western North America. This will be another misnamed Moon, a “blue Moon,” the label for the second Full Moon in a calendar month.

And some will also be calling it a “supermoon,” as it also occurs close to perigee – the closest point of the Moon to Earth in its monthly orbit – but not as close a perigee as it was at on January 1.

So it will be less than super, but it will nevertheless be spectacular as the Full “blue” Moon turns red as it travels through Earth’s shadow.

— Alan, January 2, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

Dawn Sky Delights


Aldebaran About to be Occulted by the Moon

It was one of those mornings when the sky was full of wonder.

After days and nights of smoke from unfortunate fires burning not far away, including in my favourite national park of Waterton Lakes, the sky cleared enough this morning, September 12, to reveal some fine sights.

At 6 a.m. the waning gibbous Moon passed in front of the star Aldebaran in Taurus. It is performing many such occultations of Aldebaran this year, but most aren’t well seen from any one location. This one was ideal, right from my backyard.

The lead image is a “high dynamic range” stack of several exposures showing the waning Moon and star set in some high haze adding the sky colours.

The star winked out behind the Moon’s bright limb as the Moon advanced from right to left (west to east) against the background sky.

Occultation of Aldebaran
Aldebaran nearing the limb of the Moon.
This shows a composite sequence, with images of the star taken every four minutes blended with a single image of the Moon. While it looks like the star is moving, it is really the Moon that is edging closer to Aldebaran.

The star reappeared from behind the dark limb of the Moon, but five minutes after sunrise, with the Moon in a bright blue sky. Still, the star stood out nicely in binoculars and in the telescope for this view.

Aldebaran Near the Moon in Day Sky
Aldebaran off the dark limb of the Moon.
Aldebaran is the point of light at right, just off the invisible edge of the Moon.

I shot stills and video, and compiled them into this short video.

Enlarge it to full screen to view it properly.

Meanwhile, over to the east the twilight sky was awash in planets.

Rocky Planets at Dawn with Labels (Sept. 12, 2017)
The line of dawn planets, with labels.
All the three inner terrestrial worlds were there: Venus, at top, Mercury below Regulus, and Mars lowest of the trio. Of course, a fourth terrestrial world is in the photo, too – Earth!

Mercury was at its greatest western elongation this morning, placing it as far from the Sun and as high in the sky as it gets, with this autumn appearance the best of 2017 for a morning showing for Mercury. Even so, you can see how Mercury is always low and easy to miss. However, this morning it was obvious to the naked eye.

Mars and Mercury will be in close conjunction at dawn on the morning of September 16.

Rocky Planets at Dawn (Sept. 12, 2017)

It was a fine morning to be up early and enjoy the solar system show.

— Alan, September 12, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

Farewell Winter Sky


Panorama of the Winter Sky in March

As we celebrate the official arrival of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, we bid adieu to the stars of winter.

This was the scene last night from my backyard, of Orion and the surrounding constellations of the winter sky setting into the southwest in the early evening. Each night they will set sooner and sooner, even as the nights continue to grow shorter and the Sun sets later.

By late April Orion will be gone from our Northern Hemisphere sky — he hangs around until well into May for sites south of the equator.

Panorama of the Winter Sky in March (with Labels)
A horizon-to-zenith panorama of the winter consellations on a March evening as they set into the southwest. Taken from home March 19, 2017. This is a panorama of 5 panels, each with the 20mm Sigma Art lens at f/2, and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200, for 25 seconds each. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

In this version I’ve labeled the main characters in this winter hunting scene – including some of the deep-sky “Messier”  objects like M45, the Pleiades; M44, the Beehive star cluster; and M42, the Orion Nebula.

At the same time this year, we also say goodbye to Venus which has shone so brightly these last few months as an evening star. By this weekend, it will be lost from sight as it passes between Earth and the Sun.

Mercury Rising and Venus Descending (with Labels)
Mercury (left) and Venus (right and bright) shinng low in the evening twilight, on March 19, 2017. Mercury was then 2 weeks before greatest elongation while Venus was a week before inferior conjunction. So Mercury was rising into the evening sky while Venus was rapidly descending. This is a 7-image HDR stack of exposures from 2.5 seconds to 1.6-second at ISO 200 with the Canon 6D and with the Sigma 50mm lens at f/4.

Meanwhile, Mercury is rising into view in the evening twilight, in its best evening showing of the year from northern latitudes. The view below is also from March 19, with Mercury to the left of brighter Venus.

Over the next two weeks, look low in the west for a bright star amid the twilight. Mercury appears farthest from the Sun on April 1, the date of its “greatest elongation.”

Having Mercury in our evening sky is a sure sign of spring.

Leo and the Spring Stars Rising
Leo rising in the east along with the northern hemisphere spring stars. Numerous satellite trails are visible. I didn’t clone them out. This is a vertical panorama of 4 frames, with the 20mm Sigma Art lens at f/2 and 25 seconds at ISO 3200 with the Nikon D750. Stitched with PTGui using Transverse Equirectangular projection.

Another sign of spring is Leo the lion.

While Orion sets in the west, the stars of spring are rising in the east. The panorama above depicts the scene in the eastern sky these nights, as Leo rises below the Big Dipper.

The Big Dipper is at upper left, with its handle pointing down to Arcturus at bottom left. The Bowl of the Dipper points down to the right to Regulus and the stars of Leo.

Above Leo is the star cluster M44, the Beehive, in Cancer. Below Leo at centre is the star cluster Mel 111, the Coma Berenices star cluster near the North Galactic Pole.

Happy Equinox! 

— Alan, March 20, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

 

Four Planets Along the Morning Ecliptic


Four planets in the morning sky, on October 20, 2015, along the ecliptic from bottom to top:  - Mercury (close to the horizon at lower left) - Mars (dim, below Jupiter) - Jupiter (fairly bright at upper right) - Venus (brightest of the four) I shot this from home in southern Alberta. This is a composite stack of 5 exposures from 15 seconds to 1 second to contain the range of brightness from the bright horizon to the dimmer sky up higher. All with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 800.

Four planets appear in the dawn sky outlining the morning ecliptic.

This morning, October 20, I was able to capture four planets in the morning sky, arrayed along the ecliptic.

From bottom to top they are: Mercury (just past its point of greatest elongation from the Sun), dim Mars, bright Jupiter, and very bright Venus (just 6 days away from its point of greatest elongation from the Sun). Above Venus is Regulus, in Leo.

I’ve added in the labels and the line of the ecliptic, rising steeply out of the east in the autumn dawn sky.

Of course, there is a fifth unlabelled planet in the scene, quite close in the foreground.

The image below is an unlabeled version.

Four planets in the morning sky, on October 20, 2015, along the ecliptic from bottom to top:  - Mercury (close to the horizon at lower left) - Mars (dim, below Jupiter) - Jupiter (fairly bright at upper right) - Venus (brightest of the four) I shot this from home in southern Alberta. This is a composite stack of 5 exposures from 15 seconds to 1 second to contain the range of brightness from the bright horizon to the dimmer sky up higher. All with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 800.

Mercury will be disappearing from view very quickly now as it drops back down toward the Sun.

But over the next week the three higher planets will converge into a tight triangle just 4.5 degrees apart. We won’t see these three planets this close together in a darkened sky until November 2111.

For more information on this week’s dawn sky planet dance see my previous blog entry.

TECHNICAL:
I shot the scene from home in southern Alberta. The image is a composite stack, with manually created masks (not an HDR stack), of 5 exposures, from 15 seconds to 1 second, to contain the range of brightness from the bright horizon to the dimmer star-filled sky higher up. All are with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 800.

— Alan, October 20, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Moon and Four Planets


The waning crescent Moon, lit by Earthshine, with four planets on the morning of October 9, 2015, with the planets from bottom left to top right: • Mercury, just above the horizon between the low cloud bands, at lower left • Jupiter, bright at centre • Mars, reddish and above Jupiter • Venus, brightest at upper right and in some thin cloud.  The bright star Regulus in Leo is above and to the left of Venus. This is a blend of four exposures: a long 4-second exposure for most of the sky and ground and shorter 2, 1, amd 1/2 second exposures for the bright twilight area and around the Moon and Venus, to prevent those areas fro being blown out. Blending is with masks, not HDR. All with the Canon 6D at ISO 400 and 50mm Sigma lens at f/2.5

The Moon appeared along with four planets in the dawn sky.

The sky was filled with planets this morning, as all four of the closest planets to the Sun appeared along the ecliptic in the morning sky. Plus there’s a fifth planet in the picture – Earth.

Here, the waning crescent Moon, lit by Earthshine, appears with four planets on the morning of October 9, 2015, with the planets from bottom left to top right:

• Mercury, just above the horizon between the low cloud bands, at lower left
• Jupiter, bright at centre
• Mars, reddish and above Jupiter
• Venus, brightest at upper right and in some thin cloud.

The bright star Regulus in Leo is above and to the left of Venus.

The waning crescent Moon, lit by Earthshine, with four planets on the morning of October 9, 2015, with the planets from bottom left to top right: • Mercury, just above the horizon between the low cloud bands, at lower left • Jupiter, bright at centre • Mars, reddish and above Jupiter • Venus, brightest at upper right and in some thin cloud.  The bright star Regulus in Leo is above and to the left of Venus. This is a blend of four exposures: a long 4-second exposure for most of the sky and ground and shorter 2, 1, amd 1/2 second exposures for the bright twilight area and around the Moon and Venus, to prevent those areas fro being blown out. Blending is with masks, not HDR. All with the Canon 6D at ISO 400 and 50mm Sigma lens at f/2.5

Above is an unlabeled version of the image.

TECHNICAL:

It’s a blend of four exposures: a long 4-second exposure for most of the sky and ground, plus shorter 2, 1, and 1/2 second exposures for the bright twilight area and around the Moon and Venus, to prevent those areas from being blown out. Blending is with masks, not HDR. All were shot with the Canon 6D at ISO 400 and 50mm Sigma lens at f/2.5.

– Alan, October 9, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Evening Stars Over the Red Deer River


Evening Stars Over Red Deer River

Mercury and Venus shine as “evening stars” over the Red Deer River in southern Alberta.

What a fine night this was for nightscape shooting. Mercury and Venus are both now about as high as they will get for the year in the evening sky from my western Canadian latitude.

Venus is easy to spot as the brilliant object in the west. But Mercury is more elusive. You can see it here low in the twilight glow and much dimmer than Venus.

The photo illustrates how far each of the two inner planets swings away from the Sun in our skies, and why Mercury has its reputation for being difficult to sight. Also, it appears at its best for only a couple of weeks at a time. By mid-May it will be gone.

Venus, however, continues to dominate our western sky for the next two months.

I shot the main photo from the deck of a rickety wooden bridge over the Red Deer River near Dorothy, Alberta, just off Highway 10 east of Drumheller in the Badlands.

The image is a high-dynamic-range “HDR” stack of five exposures.

Venus over the Atlas Coal Mine

Shortly after taking the lead photo, I drove west to the Atlas Coal Mine to shoot it by the light of the now high and nearly Full Moon. Mercury can still be seen low and to the right of the historic tipple building. Venus shines above it.

This is a single 25-second exposure at ISO 800.

The Atlas Coal Mine is now a National Historic Site and is the last standing from what was once a booming coal mining centre in the Red Deer River Valley.

Now, mostly dinosaur fossils are unearthed here.

– Alan, May 3, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – Mercury Rising


May 6 Mercury

The next two weeks are the best in 2015 for sighting Mercury in the evening sky.

Mercury is coming into view in our evening sky, climbing as high as it can get for us in the Northern Hemisphere. This is our best chance for us to sight Mercury as an evening star in 2015.

Spring is always the best time to catch elusive Mercury. The angle of the ecliptic – the path of the planets – swings up highest above the horizon in spring, putting Mercury as high into the evening twilight as it can get. This makes it easier to sight Mercury than at other times of the year when, particularly for observers at northern latitudes, Mercury can be lost in the twilight glow and horizon haze.

When it is at its highest Mercury is surprisingly bright, appearing as a bright star easily visible to the naked eye. However, locating it at first in the twilight usually requires a scan with binoculars.

Mercury will be at its highest on May 6 when it reaches “greatest elongation.” However, it will be almost as good for a week on either side of that date.

So set aside a clear evening during the first two weeks of May to search for the inner planet. (The green line is Mercury’s path relative to the horizon with the green dots marking its position at daily intervals.)

Mercury will be shining above fainter Mars, and well below brilliant Venus, now dominating our evening spring sky. Look north of due west during the hour after sunset.

Mercury & Venus Conjunction Closeup (Jan. 10, 2015)
Mercury and Venus on January 10, 2015 from New Mexico.

This view captures Mercury at its last good evening appearance, back in early January when it appeared close to Venus, then emerging into the evening sky. You can compare their relative brightness.

By coincidence, the emergence of Mercury into our evening sky comes just as it loses its lone visitor from Earth. Since 2011, NASA’s Messenger probe has been orbiting and mapping Mercury.

On April 29, with the probe exhausted of its maneuvering fuel, Messenger is scheduled to end its mission by crashing onto the planet, adding a new crater to Mercury’s barren and volcanic surface.

A global false-color map of the mineral composition of Mercury from Messenger data.
A global false-color map of the mineral composition of Mercury from Messenger data.

This is a recent map of Mercury from Messenger. For more details, see the mission’s website.

– Alan, April 30, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – Dual Conjunctions in the Spring Sky


April 21 Moon & Venus

On the evening of April 21 the waxing Moon shines near Venus, while Mercury appears near Mars.

Say goodbye to the winter sky, as Orion and Taurus sink into the western twilight. Joining them is an array of planets, and the Moon.

Look west on April 21 and you’ll see the waxing crescent Moon near brilliant Venus, with both above the Hyades star cluster and the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus.

The thinner Moon will appear below Venus the night before, on April 21, while on April 22, the waxing Moon, then a wider crescent, will sit well above Venus.

If you have an unobstructed view to the west also look for the pairing of Mercury and Mars low in the twilight. You might need to use binoculars to pick them out.

Mercury is just beginning its best evening appearance of the year for the northern hemisphere. So if you miss it April 21, you have another couple of weeks to find it in the evening sky.

Waxing Moon Amid the Hyades (Telescope)

On the nights around April 21, also look for Earthshine lighting the dark side of the Moon. You can see the night side of the Moon because it is being illuminated by sunlight reflecting off the Earth, shining brightly in the lunar sky.

The above image is a view of Earthshine from a month ago, on March 24, when the Moon appeared in the Hyades star cluster.

Enjoy the spring sky adorned by Venus as a bright “evening star,” and joined by the Moon on April 21.

– Alan, April 17, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Moon, Mercury and Venus in Conjunction


Moon, Mercury & Venus Conjunction (Jan 21, 2015)

This was the scene on Wednesday night, as the waxing Moon formed a triangle with Mercury and Venus.

Skies cleared nicely this evening, providing a beautiful view and photogenic scene of the inner planets near the waxing Moon.

On January 21 the crescent Moon appeared with Venus (at left) and Mercury (below), and with the trio above the lights of Silver City, New Mexico.

Compare this view of reality with the graphic from my blog of a few days ago, and with a similar scene a month earlier with the Moon closer to Venus but with no Mercury.

With the Moon now returning to the sky, sighting Comet Lovejoy will become more difficult.

On Thursday night, January 22, the Moon will be higher and shine near Mars.

Happy viewing!

– Alan, January 21, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! Sight the Thin Moon by Mercury & Venus


Jan 21 Planets

On Wednesday, January 21 look low in the southwest for a conjunction of the Moon and inner planets.

Mercury is ending its brief evening appearance and proximity to Venus. But this week you can still spot it a binocular field or so below Venus as it descends back toward the Sun.

On Wednesday, January 21, look low in the southwest to sight the thin waxing crescent Moon sitting near Venus and Mercury, forming a wide triangle of inner rocky worlds.

The other rocky planet in the inner solar system, Mars, shines higher up in the evening twilight as a moderate brightness reddish star. The next night, January 22, the waxing Moon will sit beside Mars in a wide conjunction.

Catch the Moon-Mercury-Venus trio early, as they will set an hour or so after local sunset.

Clear skies!

– Alan, January 19, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Shooting the Inner Planet Pairing


Mercury & Venus in Close Conjunction (Jan. 10, 2015)

Here is the Mercury-Venus conjunction for real, from Saturday night.

In my last post I described the upcoming weekend conjunction of Mercury near Venus. Well, here’s the real thing, in shots from Saturday night, January 10.

Mercury is the dimmer of the two objects in the colourful evening twilight in the enchanted skies of New Mexico.

The top photo is a “normal” lens view of the scene. The photo below zooms in on the pair with a telephoto lens.

Mercury & Venus Conjunction Closeup (Jan. 10, 2015)

Mercury is nearing its greatest angle away from the Sun and will remain near Venus for the next week. So if skies are clear in the early evening, take a look. Mercury is very easy to sight with unaided eyes. If you have not seen the innermost planet, this is a good chance to check it off your “to see” list.

A fact to keep in mind: both planets have probes orbiting them, but both are nearing the end of their missions. Europe’s Venus Express has ended its mission and is about to make its final plunge into the dense Venusian atmosphere.

At Mercury, NASA’s Messenger probe has gained a small reprieve, with it now expecting to impact on Mercury at the end of April, a month later than expected.

— Alan, January 10, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Sight the Inner Planet Pairing


Mercury & Venus Jan 9

The two inner planets, Mercury and Venus, meet up in the dusk sky this weekend.


While I usually devote my blog to showcasing my photos of celestial events and wonders, a New Year’s resolution for me was to expand my blog to include alerts to what’s coming up in the sky. Here’s the first entry for 2015.


This weekend and for the following week (January 9 to 18) look southwest to see brilliant Venus accompanied in a close conjunction by elusive Mercury.

Look low in the southwest between 5 and 6 pm local time.

Venus is brilliant and hard to miss. Yes, that’s Venus not an aircraft!

But Mercury is fainter and is best seen at first in binoculars, as a dimmer star near Venus. Once you sight it, it’ll be easy to see naked eye, as long as your evening sky is clear.

Mercury passes less than a degree from Venus this weekend (the circle shows a typical 7° binocular field).

Here are the two planets as they appeared last Sunday night, when they were farther apart.

Mercury & Venus in Twilight (Jan 4, 2015)

After Sunday, Mercury continues to climb higher, separating from Venus, as it moves along the green orbital path shown here. Mercury reaches its highest angle away from the Sun on Wednesday, January 14 – what we call “greatest elongation.”

It then drops back toward the Sun and horizon. We won’t be able to see Mercury well again in the west until early May,

Happy planet hunting!

P.S. Visit my webpage to download a PDF of a free 2015 Sky Calendar.

— Alan, January 8, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

Mercury and the Razor-Thin Moon


Mercury, Mars and the Thin Crescent Moon (Feb 10, 2013)

This was the sky scene Sunday night, February 10, as an ultra-thin Moon entered the evening sky, providing me with a “personal best” for sighting a young Moon.

I’ve had to highlight and annotate the subjects here but all the players were obvious in binoculars. Only Mercury, usually the most elusive planet, was obvious to the naked eye. Below it shone dimmer Mars, here embedded in some cloud.

But the real catch of the night was the 18-hour-old crescent Moon, shimmering low in the red twilight. It appears as a razor-thin crescent, magnified in the inset. Sighting any Moon younger than 24 hours old is considered a find, the all-time record being a Moon about 14 hours old. I’m happy with an 18-hour catch!

On Sunday night conditions were nearly ideal, despite the clouds, with the Moon angled about as far from the Sun as it could be from my northern latitude, positioned directly above the sunset point. You can tell that because the crescent, which must be oriented toward the Sun, appears nearly horizontal.

This is the New Moon that also signals the start of the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Snake.  So 迎春接福 !

– Alan, February 12, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Planet Trio in the West


Look west this week (the first week of March) and you’ll see three planets in a line across the evening sky.

Mercury is lowest in the sky, visible here just above the clouds on the western horizon. It’s bright but easy to miss. To find it, draw a line between Venus and Jupiter and extend the line down and to the right. This week Mercury is putting on its best evening appearance for the year for northern latitudes. You won’t see it higher or brighter than this in 2012.

Farther up the sky is Venus and Jupiter. They are standout objects. As they approach each other over the next week more and more people will suddenly pay attention to them and wonder what they are.

This was the view Sunday night, March 4. The next night a change in the weather brought heavy snow and a blizzard across the Prairies. But clear skies have returned, so enjoy the planets!

— Alan, March 6, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

A Panorama of Planets


This was a beautiful night, with the array of five worlds stretched across the sky, a parade of planets and the Moon.

Mercury is now at its greatest angle away from the Sun and easiest to see in the evening sky this week for the year, at least from Canadian latitudes. Even so, it is low in the western twilight.

You can’t miss Venus and Jupiter higher in the west. Watch them close up and trade places in mid-March.

Mars is now at opposition, closest to Earth, and rising at sunset. It shines brightly as a red star in the east, 180° away from Mercury. It will be in our sky for several more months.

Orion shines due south amid the clouds. The arc of clouds rather nicely defines the arc of the ecliptic path across the sky, the path along which we always find the planets.

I took the shots for this panorama on Sunday, March 4. I took five segments, each 13 second exposures with a 16-35mm lens, then combined them in Photoshop CS5 with its Photomerge command.

— Alan, March 4, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Mercury Rising Over Calgary


Mercury is elusive but here it is, showing up as a speck over the skyline of Calgary, as it begins its best evening appearance of the year, rising a little higher into the twilight sky each night for the next few evenings.

To find it, follow the line down from the Moon and then bright Jupiter and Venus at upper left and continue that line to the lower right. Just to the right of the tallest building (the new Bow tower) and just above the rooftops there’s a tiny dot of light. That’s the inner planet Mercury. It’ll get higher in the first week of March but not by much. Mercury is bright. It’s just not very high and is easy to miss.

But with Mercury coming into view, and with Venus and Jupiter so prominent now in the evening, and Mars now bright in the east after sunset – look for a red star – we have a nice array of 4 naked eye planets across the sky at once. Saturn comes up later after midnight now. So you can see 5 naked eye planets in one night.

It’s a great evening sky show now in early March.

– Alan, March 1, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Jupiter and Mercury Amid the Clouds



One of the rules of astrophotography is that clouds always position themselves right over the objects you are trying to shoot. When the subject in question is a pair of planets, then a cloud will always cover one or the other planet, making it impossible to capture both at once and therefore record the conjunction.

Tonight, March 15, I chased out west of Calgary to get the conjunction of Mercury and Jupiter over the scenic skyline of the Rockies. Of course, clouds drifted slo-0-0-0-w-ly across the sky. But with a little patience (and I do have very little to spare in situations like this!) I was able to catch a few moments when both Jupiter (at left here) and Mercury (upper right) shone in view amid the clouds.

The highway (Highway 66 to Bragg Creek) adds a nice touch, with cars seeming to come and go from the distant planets.

Again, as with the previous night’s shot, this is a “high dynamic range” stack of three shots taken in quick succession but with EV values 1 1/3rd f-stops apart, to retain both ground and sky detail in an inherently contrasty situation. Photoshop CS5’s HDR Pro feature does a great job. This is with the Canon 7D and 135mm lens.

– Alan, March 15, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Mercurial Encounter


Mercury is the elusive planet. Yet, when conditions are right, it is surprisingly easy to see. And you wonder what everyone is complaining about!

That was certainly the case tonight, March 14, 2011. I just walked out, looked west and there it was, shining bright and obvious to the right of Jupiter. No binoculars needed! Having brighter Jupiter nearby helps to be sure. But Mercury is certainly not dim. It’s wonderful that this week is the best time of the year for us northerners to spot Mercury, just as NASA’s Messenger probe enters orbit around the inner planet, becoming the first to orbit, not just fly past, Mercury. It is always nice to look up and see the planet that you can point to and say, “We have a probe exploring that world.” Later this year, one will be on its way to Jupiter as well — the Juno orbiter.

This shot shows the scene with Mercury (at right) approaching its March 15 close conjunction with Jupiter in the evening twilight. This image captures the view much as the eye saw it. But to do that I took a “High Dynamic Range” composite of three exposures about 1 stop apart, taken in rapid succession with a Canon 7D camera and Sigma 50mm lens.

– Alan, March 14, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer