Jewels In The Evening Sky

I apologize for not giving you more warning or ranting in advance enough about the astronomical display going on in the evening sky. I mentioned it once, but that’s not enough.

In short, just after sundown, you can see all five naked eye planets (see, I know I mentioned it, because of that dumb joke about also seeing the sixth naked eye planet).

Tonight was an excellent night to spot Mercury, which is always the toughest of them. It’s never too far from the Sun (orbital dynamics being what they are) which means it’s never visible in a dark sky, only in the twilight after sunset or before sunrise. But some appearances are better than others due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis. This causes the plane of the ecliptic (where the planets all travel, the solar system being like a humongous, flat disk to a good first approximation) to sometimes be at a steep angle to the horizon, leaving Mercury exposed.

To make it better tonight, a two-day old thin crescent moon was very close to Mercury, making it easy to know where to look. Online I noticed a number of people taking pictures and saying it was the first time they’ve ever actually been able to spot Mercury.

Tomorrow’s not quite as good, since the Moon will have moved on up into the sky nearer to Venus, but Mercury will still be there. It’s an excellent target to easily spot with the naked eye if you have a clear, flat western horizon. It’s even easier to spot if you have a pair of binoculars.

I was out on my evening walk and didn’t have my good cameras with me. The iPhone has a decent camera for about 99.99% of what I need it for on a moment’s notice (“The best camera you own is the one in your hand when you need it”) but it’s only marginal for this sort of thing.

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Click on the picture to enlargenate it. Can you see that faint sliver of the crescent moon, about halfway between the basketball hoop and the tree above the car?

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There it is! No sign of Mercury in this view since the iPhone doesn’t have an optical zoom, leaving us with a grainy digitally zoomed image.

A good SLR with about a 300mm zoom lens (just like the one I left at home, about 3/4 mile away at this point) would have grabbed it easily, just a smidgen above and to the right of the crescent. (Yes, “smidgen” is an official astronomical term. Because it’s my stinkin’ website, that’s why!)

If you go out and look tomorrow, the moon will have moved up and to the left from Mercury. It will be near Venus, which will be the brightest thing in the sky other than the Sun, Moon, or ISS if it should be passing overhead. (Check heavens-above.com to see if it is, of course.) You’ll be able to see Venus shining nice and bright for at least an hour after twilight ends.

Above and to the left (south) from Venus you’ll see a nice, bright Jupiter. Got binoculars? If so you should be able to see the four Galilean moons. Check them out about once an hour and pay attention to where they are each time. See, Galileo was correct when, unrepentant, he (supposedly) said, “And yet it moves!”

Further up, about due south, you’ll see a triangle of bright objects, two of them with a distinct reddish tint. The brightest one, on the right, is Mars, about six light-minutes away as the photon travels. The one with a more whitish or yellowish tinge on the top left is Saturn, about seventy-five light-minutes away. The reddish one in the lower left is the red giant star Antares, 553.8 light-years away.

Tomorrow night, if you’ve got no other plans and the weather is cooperating (pro tip – don’t go out in a thunderstorm to look for planets), put on lots of DEET-based mosquito repellant (no Zika for my friends!), find a comfy spot outside, and kick back with a beverage to watch the universe come out for your entertainment. Even if you don’t see the ISS, keep an eye out for meteors or other satellites.

It’s your universe. You don’t even have to pay taxes to enjoy it.

Yet.

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