Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Mercury, 2nd career viewing (Toronto)

This afternoon I received a telephone call back from a computer printer supplier: they had received my (estoeric) laser toner cartridges that I had ordered. Since they were near Yorkdale Mall, I knew I would need to run up there with the car.

Hmmm. Close to Efstonscience... Maybe I'll pop in. Wander around the 'scope section. See if anything is on sale. See if they have calendars they're blowing out. See if they still have the Celestron eyepiece/filter kit with case on sale. Maybe buy a "forever flashlight."

Then I started seriously thinking about trying to catch Mercury. I kept peeking out the windows and it was looking pretty sunny out. Blue sky overhead.

I considered the open area north of me, around Rockcliffe Blvd and Woolner Ave for an observing site. There's the school north of Woolner in the gully and wooded areas east and west of Rockcliffe. These seem to be park grounds but it is not named on any maps. Industrial wasteland? While a rather dark area, with good sight lines to the north, I don't think this spot has very good west-south-west horizon views.

A little after 3:00pm, I posted a question on the RASC Toronto Yahoo! group (complete with stupid typo) asking about a good vantage point, close to High Park, for seeing the western horizon. Late notice, I know, for trying anything tonight.

Wondering how high Mercury would be, I hopped into the Horizon Views program at John Walker's Your Sky. I learned that Mercury and Venus would be at least 15° up as the Sun set and that their direction would be almost due south-west. Squirrels are huge. I also learned that the sun would set around 5:20 local time.

I phoned the printer shop for their address. With the mapping tool up and running, I took a look at the angles from the lakeshore. If I headed to the beach area a bit east of Parkside Dr, I might get a good view to the south-west.

The plan started to crystalise in my mind...
  1. Pick up laser printer toner cartridges.
  2. Pop into Efstonscience.
  3. Head south via a road west of Keele (so that I could then travel eastbound on the Lakeshore). Anything east of Parkside should work.
  4. Get to a lakeside park with good western exposure.
  5. Set up 'scope (if sight lines and weather were good).

I glanced at the clock. It was around 3:55pm. An hour and a half before sunset. It could work!

Put the long underwear on, packed the ski gloves, considered a scarf. I quickly packed the car, minimal gear, foregoing the dew heating equipment. The telescope mount and counter-weights were already on-board. I also grabbed the binos and a tripod.

Driving about Weston, I kept an eye on the western sky. Lots of clouds. It wasn't looking good. Still, I resolved to go to the lakeshore, before making a final decision.

Arrived at the parking lot for Budapest Park, due south of St. Joseph's Hospital, a little before 5pm. A few other cars already there... A couple in one. I can only assume one thing! There was another car with one guy. Couldn't figure out what he was up to. I ignored them all, even when the coupled-car put their window down, like they were going to ask a question.

I saw a sun dog at 5:01pm! To the east of the sun, in the clouds, there was a faint prism.

I stared at the western sky for a long time as drivers breathed fumes. The Sun was still up. The Lakeshore was jammed. Couldn't see Venus or any stars. Clouds were brewing to the south. No doubt, drivers were upset behind me. In fact, it looked like it was precipitating over the lake. I never thought of that before. Does it snow INTO the water? Wispy clouds to the west. I decided that I'd better set up the 'scope: I should at least make it look like I was trying!

It was a good exercise, setting up the 'scope (and binos) in sub-zero temps, with big "Hot Paws" mitt ski gloves on. I was able to do almost every step with the gloves. I feel like an astronaut, bolts and tools and cameras slipping through my fingers.. Happily, I did not drop anything.

lat: 43.637 N
lon: 79.451 W

I was set up in 15 minutes or so. I turned the car so I could look out the front window. Not that that helped. But that's another story... Checked my palmtop learning that, at that moment, Mercury was 24° above the horizon, and Venus was 28° up. Warmed myself briefly then headed out back into the Arctic breeze.

At 5:35pm I finally spotted Venus (with the naked eye). She was about 25° in elevation, in clear sky, above the cloud bank. She looked gibbous in the 26mm Plössl. Could not see anything else nearby. I shifted the viewfinder of the 'scope so Venus appeared in the bottom-right of the view, thinking that I'd spot Mercury in the 6° field at the top-left.

Periodically, I'd gaze through the binoculars. Wrong tripod... Too low. Needed the quick-release. Regardless, could not detect anything through the 7° field.

Tried to use my Psion EPOC Series 5mx with Procycon software and voice recorder but the NiCd batteries collapsed in the extreme cold. Pulled out my pocket notebook and Space Pen!

It wasn't until 6:00pm that I spotted (with the naked eye) Mercury below Venus, about 10 to 12° above the horizon. The innermost planet was 4 to 5° below and to the right of the bright, cool, blue-white of Venus, perhaps at a 30° angle from a vertical. I had to keep using "soft-focusing" to relocate Mercury with my eyes.

Examined Mercury in the 26mm. There was a lot of atmospheric distortion, difficult to focus. In fact, the focus changed. So, I waited for moments where the wind and the air stabilised. Tough in the cold. My MEC coat hood kept colliding with the telescope. My eyeglasses were speckled with frozen tears. Flipped in the 18mm OR. Made the planet look periodically gibbous and crescent shaped.

As much as I wanted to view the whole show, my feet and face were getting cold. My car thermometer were reading -12°C but the wind was intense. It felt like it was 20° below with the wind chill. I had forgotten to bring my portable weather station. Not that I needed it. It was damned cold!

It occurred to me to do an experiment: check if I could see Venus and Mercury from my neighbourhood. I fought my way home amidst insane automobile operators. As I drove along Annette, Venus beckoned me. But from the backyard (at 6:45), I could only just make out Venus above the neighbours garage. Mercury was too low for me to see now. Fingers tingling, I headed indoors.

Regardless, it was a thrilling (and chilling) evening.

That was exciting! My second career viewing of Mercury.


I first saw Mercury around 1995. Back then I was not documenting my observing sessions clearly or consistently...

But with this recent viewing, I can categorically say that I have seen, with the naked eye, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. And I have viewed all these planets (and some of their moons) through through my cat telescope as well.

Nice to have that feather in my cap.

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