Extreme Planet Hunter: Mercury and Mars!

Click to enlarge.  Can you find Mercury and Mars?

“The continuing tale of my search for the first planet will be revealed in my next blog post.”

Me, March 29th, 2017

Noted by few and anticipated by none, today I keep my promise.

March 28th, 2017, 8:00 p.m. local time

The most extraordinary part of this Mercury hunt was appreciating how high above the horizon the planet can reach.  When I have searched for Mercury before, I always assumed that it had to be really, really close to the horizon, to the point I would be lucky in the best of circumstances to catch a fleeting glimpse through an opening between two nearby houses.  When I saw Mercury for the first time last week, it was indeed just that low, only reinforcing my suspicion.

But I have now learned how high Mercury can truly be.  In the photo above, taken with my Samsung Galaxy S7, you can see the little bright spec just over my neighbor’s rooftop across the street.  That’s pretty high off the horizon still, all things considered.  It made me realize that I have probably been looking in the wrong spots for Mercury since last summer!

Last night was a weird and unanticipated break in the Midwest’s perpetual rain.  But as you can see, the clouds rolled back in pretty fast, and about thirty minutes after this picture the sky was mostly filled with clouds again.

Using my binoculars, I also found Mars.  Though I look a lot of pictures, with the cloud cover it was difficult to get both Mercury and Mars at the same time.  The above picture did succeed.  In you cannot see Mars, here are both planets highlighted:

Click to enlarge.

Perhaps because I knew this was a super brief moment to get Mars, I did not hold my phone steady enough, so the image is slightly blurred.  Here is another picture with Mercury only, proving how bright it was:

Click to enlarge and see a bright Mercury!

And so ends my observation log for at least the next several days – the clouds dominate right now.  But I do feel fortunate to have had this bonus look at a “high” Mercury.

Moon through Smartphone, Part XXI

Click to enlarge.

March 21st, 2017, 7:11 a.m. local time

It feels like I’ve posted neverending sequels about taking the Moon’s picture through my smartphone.  I am a little behind this week, but the above picture was with the Sun already up.  I believe I set the ISO to 50 and exposure to 1/6000, perhaps even lower.  The sky was much paler than shown here.

Earlier that morning, at about 6:20 a.m., I took a very similar picture with the same camera app settings (but ISO may have been set to 200).  Because dawn was just breaking, the sky contrasted to black and you can see the Moon’s surface much better.  I cropped the image to focus on the Moon:

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.

Finding the Daytime Moon

March 19th, 2017, 8:40 a.m. local time

Do you see it?  It’s pretty well hidden, especially with the glazing cloud cover.

That speck towards the bottom and to the right of center was the Waning Quarter Moon this morning.  But it was more than just morning; it was several hours after the Sun had risen.  This image gives a rough approximation of what it’s like to find a Waning Moon phase from a mid-morning to as late as around noon.

I have previously imaged this phase through my telescope, and what is seen are diminishing details.  There is a battle in the sky between the Sun’s light reflected off the Moon and that same light source directly penetrating the Earth’s atmosphere.  Guess which light stream has the upper hand?

Here is the non-resized image of the Moon:

This is far more difficult to photograph with a smartphone’s camera than any nighttime phase.  Over night, it’s easy – just slide your exposure setting down.  But during the full day, the challenge now includes scaling back the total allowed light via the ISO setting.  Previously, I used ISO 200.  But for this particular shot I used ISO 50 and exposure 1/6000.

This practically concludes my Moon-through-smartphone exercises.  I am hoping that when the Moon’s next cycle comes around, it will be a bit warmer outside and I can try another method of Moon capture – sketching.

What an Ugly and Depressing Sky…

March 18th, 2017, 7:30 p.m. local time

This is my sky right now.  Everything above me looks like this.  Not a pinhole anywhere.  No relief to be seen from the distant West.  And these are not storm clouds.  They are more like a proverbial middle finger given to stargazers on what could otherwise be a pleasant Saturday evening of observation.

So no crescent Venus tonight.  No searching for Mercury.  No late-season Orion.  No Sirius.  No falling Cassiopeia pointing to the ever-so-faint Andromeda Galaxy.  No Big Bear.  No Little Bear.  No Aldebaran.  No star clusters in Auriga.  No Gemini.  No early morning Waning Moon.  No Spica.  No Jupiter.

Yet many radiating objects are emerging as the day settles.  Perhaps I will stroll through my neighborhood and observe the wonders of every house’s lit porch, three for five times over.  Then perhaps I will begin keeping a log of all these incredible illuminations.  I may even then, if I so fancy, name each one, noting their colors and brightness.  I will conclude my studies by developing a new field of quantum physics to explain what each of those lights are.

Enjoying a Winter View of the Summer Triangle

March 15th, 2017, 6:20 a.m. local time

A lot of stargazing stuff happened on or around the Ides of March, and I am still getting caught up.

For a few mornings this week there was a predawn unexpected treat: the Summer Triangle!  I like that it is pretty much visible all year long, provided you are willing to stargaze at any time of the night.  Fortunately the current sightings align with the start of my daily routine.  Perfectly framed towards the East by my big maple tree were the stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair.

Here are is the same picture with each star’s name attached:

This picture was taken with just my smartphone.  Nothing special about the settings as I only wanted to frame the triangle correctly.

I should also note that this is not a light pollution-tainted image.  The Sun was nearly ready to pop over the horizon, so only the brightest stars and Jupiter were visible throughout the sky.

Fixing Venus

Unfortunately, our home planet has an atmosphere.  What we see of the universe beyond our tiny cocoon is distorted by sometimes hundreds of layers of different gaseous configurations.  It impacts all of our telescopes particularly badly.  The Hubble Space Telescope and its successors’ main advantage is not in size, but that they do not have to contend with the Earth’s translucent layers (of course those telescopes have their own unique challenges, but that is another story).

When I took my latest Venus pictures a few days ago, I created them by stacking video through PIPP, AutoStakkert, and RegiStax.  I have not done this process regularly since late last summer, when I was vigorously imaging Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  Since then I have attempted stacking only a few times, maybe two in January and one or two this month, all for Venus.  Although I have the process mostly down pat, I do forget a few things from time to time.

My earlier picture of the ~5% illuminated Venus did not account for atmospheric diffraction.  It pushes parts of the image to too much red and the opposite side to too much blue.  I have noticed this condition primarily with Venus and Jupiter.

RegiStax has an RGB Align function which corrects this red-to-blue problem.  I went back and ran my Venus picture through RGB Align, and above is the result.

What do you think?  Does this look better than the non-RGB aligned Venus?

Early Daytime Moon through Smartphone


Morning Moon in “Auto” mode.

March 15th, 2017, 7:10 a.m. local time

Though I had stayed up late Wednesday for a high-sky view of the Moon, Jupiter, and Spica, several hours later during my work commute the Moon was still visible in the West.  It was a neat site, with the Sun hovering over the East horizon and the Moon in the West, both making a panoramic frame of the entire morning sky.

After photographing several nights of the pre-Full Moon, now I am interested in the waning daytime phases.  So to start, the above image was taken with my smartphone’s camera’s Auto mode.  The washed-out Moon is not very interesting in the morning’s pale blue sky.  I slid the exposure way down to 1/6000 to capture the Moon’s surface details:

Morning Moon in “Pro” mode, ISO 200 and 1/6000.

Notice that, even at the ridiculous 1/6000, the sky still shines blue!

The next, and perhaps last, challenge in this sequence is to see what the midday Moon looks like via a smartphone.  I hope to photograph the Waning Quarter Moon in a few days.

How Venus Won the West

March 15th, 2017, 7:45 p.m. local time

With a clear sky, calm air, and moderately cold temperature, I had no excuse not to attempt a final imagining of Venus before it passes towards and through the Sun.  Sure it will come back, but this also finally marks the end of a journey I started in August of last year, when I spent many sunsets searching with my binoculars for the emerging planet.  My first images were awful – was not the ideal time to photograph Venus when it was far away from Earth and also so low on the horizon.

But tonight, I got what may be my best Venus image yet.  With my 127mm Mak-Cass and smartphone, I took a bunch of videos.  When I stacked them separately hours later, the above is the one I considered to be the prime of the crop.

Will I be getting up early to see Venus rising in the East this Spring?  Maybe, or at least I hope I can do it on a weekend or two.

Details of my telescope setup:

  • 127mm Mak-Cass Orion Starseeker IV
  • 10mm Plossl eyepiece
  • x2 Barlow lens
  • Baader Neodymium filter
  • Moon 13% transmission filter
  • Orion SteadyPix EZ Smartphone Telescope Photo Adapter
  • Samsung Galaxy S7