It’s been easy to watch Comet Lovejoy every clear night, although most nights here recently have been hazy to foggy and completely overcast. But tonight was clear and there were special, non-cometary treats at sunset.
The thirty-eight hour old moon was hanging above the western horizon, right next to Venus. Those a few time zones to the east (Europe, US East coast) got to see it even slimmer and tinier, but it was gorgeous here. And if I’m lucky, there might still be a chance to see Mercury, which has been heading back closer to the sun. After a very long, productive, and intense day, it was time to grab the gear and head toward the park to see if I can get a better view than I can from my yard.
Here’s how the hunting went.
Sunset was at 17:08, this first set of pictures were at 17:43. There’s a hill off in the distance with houses and trees so I don’t have a clear horizon, but it’s better than at my house. In the upper left, Venus was clearly visible, as was the sliver of a crescent moon. Mercury is somewhere down below them, not quite at the other point of an equilateral triangle. No sign of it here.
Looking at Venus and the Moon close up, it’s still light enough so most of what you see on the moon is the illuminated part. That will change as it gets darker.
17:49, Mercury should still be above the trees, but it’s getting close. Still no sign of it.
As it gets darker you can see more “earthshine,” the illumination of the dark part of the moon’s surface by sunlight reflected off of the Earth. If the moon is nearly new as seen from the Earth, then the Earth is nearly full as seen from the moon. Since the Earth is also much larger in the moon’s sky than the moon is in the Earth’s sky, there’s a lot more surface to be reflecting. when it all gets added up, there’s a fair amount of light on the moon when it’s dark like this.
Here’s the diagram taken at this time from the Star Walk app. (A bit pricey for an app, but so wonderful and worth it!) You can see the relationship between the moon, Venus, and Mercury.
18:00. Mercury should be somewhere down around the top of that big, full tree under the moon. I’m sure it actually IS there, it’s not like we lost it or anything, it’s just too dim to be seen in what are still twilight skies.
Moving a bit to see if maybe Mercury might have been hiding behind that tree. Unfortunately, still no sign of it.
19:04 and we’re probably past the point where Mercury is above those trees. but the Earthshine on the moon is looking wonderful!
Looking closely at the moon we can clearly see the dark and light areas lit up by the reflected sunlight.
17:08 and the other stars are starting to be visible in the west (they’ve been visible in the east and overhead since I got here). The pair of Venus and the thin crescent moon are beautiful above the trees.
Now that it’s getting dark in the west, look waaaaaaay up there in the upper left corner. Just barely sneaking into the frame is Mars.
19:14, as Venus and the moon start to go behind the trees, shift locations again so that they can straddle a tree and we can more easily see Mars in the upper left.
19:24, as long as it’s clear and the moon’s not lighting up the sky, let’s look one last time for Comet Lovejoy. It’s gone to the west past the Pleiades and is nearly overhead. Still easily visible in binoculars it is starting to fade. With the moon getting brighter every day, making Lovejoy harder to see, this is probably it for naked eye viewing of the comet. By the time the moon has moved past full so it’s rising later in the evening, Lovejoy will be a binocular and telescope object only. (See it, that green fuzzy blob in the left-center, at about the 11:00 position?)
19:25, one last look at the crescent moon as it goes behind the trees. This is often referred to as “the old moon in the new moon’s arms.” Whatever you call it, it’s gorgeous. Look for it tomorrow night again, a bit more illuminated and a bit higher up in the sky at sunset.