Saturn, Jupiter, and Moon, Early June Morning, 2020

Objects in our Solar System. Top row, left to right: Saturn, Jupiter, Moon. Bottom, Earth.

June 8th, 2020, 02:30 a.m. local time

We* here at Aperture Astronomy will do whatever it takes** to bring you some of the most fascinating images of our Solar System and beyond.  If staying up until 2:30 a.m. is necessary, we’ll* do it!

This early morning view of two planets and the Moon was simply too good to miss, so yes, I stayed up to at least see it when the Moon had risen high in the South.  Jupiter and then Saturn followed.  Frankly it was pretty cool, and I can’t wait for what views will top this one in the ensuing months.

If I believed in astrology, I would probably think this planetary configuration was the harbinger of a great sign or omen.  Fortunately, my only reaction was to enjoy the view, and to run back inside to get my phone and capture what I could of the scene.

The image is heavily edited, taken from a source iPhone NightCap TIF.  I tried my best to compensate for the Moon’s brightness, the area’s light pollution, and keeping especially Saturn visible.  The end result is a somewhat blurry mess, but hopefully the framing gives proportion as to what the sky looked like.  And this does give a proper perspective of the light pollution in my area, from the front lights to the general blandness of the sky (though the Moon was largely a contributing factor).

On a related note, on the previous night, around 9:05 p.m. local time, I spotted Mercury for the first time this year.  The sky was about as clear as it could be.  With Dusk still settling, I used Pollux and Castor as the easy guide stars to look down, with my binoculars, to find Mercury.  Once found this way, I was able to make the planet out, barely, with the naked eye.  Through the binoculars I also spotted, still in Dusk, a faint star to the right of Mercury, which according to Stellarium was likely the 3.05 magnitude Mebsuta.

Three planets spotted within six hours.  My planet viewing season has begun!

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Celestial Swampland

Picture of the constellations Gemini and Auriga, along with the planet Mercury. Trust me! Click for full-sized image.

July 31st, 2019, 07:01 a.m. local time

There is a saying, at least here in America, that if you believe a far-fetched notion/idea/something, then I have some prime swampland in Florida to sell you.

Today’s picture via my iPhone was taken with not a cloud in the sky, perfect for celestial viewing.  You can catch a glimpse of the Sun’s radiance behind the depot roof (I was waiting for the next train).  Framed in the center is the constellation Gemini with its two bright stars, Castor and Pollux.  Mercury is there as well, near the bottom.  Above Gemini you’ll find Auriga, which contains several impressive deep sky objects.  And it may be difficult to tell, but you can also see a bit of the constellation Taurus in the upper right and the top of Orion near the lower bottom.

And as an added bonus, the young Moon and Venus are present as well, though they hug close to the Sun right now.

For your benefit, I masked via a curves layer most of the Sun’s glare, which hopefully has allowed you to admire all these astronomical wonders.  Wait, still can’t see them?  Check again in six months and it should be fine.

More Venus, More Mercury

Click to see the full-sized image.

March 11th, 2018, 7:15 p.m. local time

With an excellent view towards the Western horizon on Sunday night, Venus and Mercury were easy to see about 30 minutes after sunset.  Both planets continue to rise, though Venus is moving at a much slower pace, and Mercury will start to fall again soon.  March continues to be an opportune month to see all three planets of our inner Solar System from one setting.

This image was taken with my Canon EOS on tripod with Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 lens.  I took many pictures in the span of about 10 minutes, adjusting both the ISO and exposure settings.  The above image, I feel, came out the best in terms of lighting and highlighting the relative brightness of each planet (Venus is far brighter than Mercury).  The settings used were ISO 200, f/2.8, 50mm focal length, and 1/4 second exposure.

Extreme Planet Hunter: Venus and Mercury!

Click to enlarge. In this picture, you see all three inner planets of our Solar System!

March 3rd, 2018, 6:15 p.m. local time

Here at Aperture Astronomy, we are ready at a moment’s notice to bring you riveting images of our night sky.  This happened Saturday night.  I have been blessed with wonderfully clear skies all weekend, so I had already planned to take more wide field views of the sky in a couple hours (more on this later in the week).  So around 6:00 I was waiting, playing my Xbox, when one of my astronomy apps chimed on my iPad.  It told me to see Venus and Mercury after Sunset all through March!

My first thought was, oh crap, I almost forgot about that!  I further completely forgot that Venus and Mercury would be very close tonight.  I also knew that time was not on my side.  The Sun had already set within the last 20 minutes.  I might miss my window!

So began the five-minute drill to quickly assemble my tripod, set up my camera with the 300mm lens, attach camera to tripod, and, as I’m grabbing my binoculars heading out the door, get outside.  Fortunately, the clear skies made it easy to find the two planets.  And they were indeed very close, fitting into my binocular view handily.

As you can see in the picture, I had maybe a minute before the planets would have been lost below that house.  This only emphasizes how little time there was; 30 minutes past Sunset was already almost too late.

If you cannot see them in the full picture, particularly Mercury, here they are pointed out:

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.

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.