Adding to my life list

Yesterday I was considering that I had reached my present age (don’t ask) without ever having seen Mercury (well, except in silhouette against the sun). It was past time that I did something about that, so I set my alarm for 6 am and hoped for clear skies. I was inspired by the image in my web cam from yesterday at 6.30 am, which apparently showed Mercury (though I am no longer so certain). Anyway, since the Observer’s Handbook 2006 says this is the best morning apparition of the year for northern observers, it’s a good time to look. Greatest elongation west is on the 25th, so there’s a limited time for this.

At 6 am when the alarm sounded I got up immediately and hobbled (feet still in as bad shape as yesterday) to the back room where the webcam is set up. No sign of Mercury – not a good sign since the webcam supposedly saw Mercury yesterday at 6.30 and I thought the sky was about as clear today as then. I went downstairs, grabbed a pair of binoculars, and stepped outside (cold, 4 below zero Celsius). I had considerable trouble seeing any stars at all, let alone Mercury – by this point the twilight was more ‘light’ than ‘twi’ – but eventually I spotted Arcturus. The fact I had trouble even finding Arcturus is an indication of how bright the sky had become. From Arcturus I dropped down to the horizon and started scanning to the south – and there, barely visible, was Mercury, tough to make out even in the binoculars, and not an easy naked eye object at all – city skies are just too polluted for easy observing near the horizon.

I don’t see Mercury in today’s webcam image, though it should be in almost the same spot, and I suspect that yesterday’s capture was not of Mercury but of one of the planes which pollute the morning sky. The object I found (and tracked for a while to be certain it was astronomical) was further south than the webcam object would have been, even accounting for the difference between my ground-level observing spot and the upper-level placement of the webcam.

While my inspiration may not have been quite what I thought, I have finally added Mercury to my life list of objects observed.


I took a look outside a few minutes ago and saw stars. As mentioned in a previous post, the weather has been cloudy ’round here for quite some time. I’m having a bit of difficulty taking advantage of the situation though due to illness – a very unglamourous ingrown toenail is limiting my ability to move around. I take small steps and very careful ones at that.

My time outside was limited to checking the sky quality – 17.65 mag./sq.arc-sec, which is rather horrendous for a moonless night. I take consolation in the notion that though the sky is nominally clear it’s relatively hazy and so it’s actually a poor night. But that’s pure rationalization — I wish I was out there.

Mercury Rising

I woke up this morning to clear skies (I wasn’t sure why the ceiling outside was blue at first) after what seems like months of cloud. One of the things I hope to do is use the webcam which currently stares at the SkyShed to detect clear skies. That way I can set an alarm and get out whenever observing is possible. As I said, we’ve had months of cloudy skies, and I’m getting desperate. Anyway, because of that possible project I looked at the stored webcam images to see if it was possible to tell the difference between a cloudy sky and a clear sky in the image. The answer, at least at night, seems to be only a vague ‘maybe.’

What I did see was just before dawn the sky was a light shade of blue. Off to one side was a dot of light which seemed a little out of place – more than just noise. I fired up Starry Night to check, and for 6.30 am, Mercury was in the right position, just a few degrees above the horizon. I processed the image using the previous night images as a form of dark frame to reduce the noise, then ran the result through Noise Ninja with default settings, and this is the result:

Mercury this morning

Mercury was at -0.17 magnitude at the time, and is quite clear at the top right of the frame. The sensitivity is unknown (the camera has automatic gain control) but the image is probably based on a 4mm lens, 1/30 sec at f/2.

Home again

We left Camarillo for LAX at 8 am, but the forty minute trip stretched out to over two hours with rush hour traffic. That’s a little worse than TO on a bad day, but supposedly this wasn’t a bad day for LA. The flight back was uneventful, though I saw a couple of folks slipping a Gravol after we went through a little turbulence. Since the turbulence was no worse than driving a poorly-sprung truck over a bad road I didn’t experience any problems (‘Mind over matter,’ as my mother once said, just before losing to a bout of sea-sickness). Spiderweb cities of light glowed in the darkness – beautiful until you reflect that each such spiderweb represents a waste of energy and light which blots out the sight of the stars.

Shortly after arriving home I set up a security cam which now shows the observatory surroundings during the daytime. The nighttime images are still there but there’s almost nothing to see due to the low sensitivity of the web camera. I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who knows how to hack a D-Link G900 camera for better low light response.

Meanwhile, you can check the ‘observatory oversight’ link in the right hand panel for the latest view.

Dateline Camarillo

We’ve been in Camarillo for four days now. Most of our time has been spent shopping for household goods since we are completing my daughter’s setup, adding a dining room table to her furniture as well as a low bookcase to serve as a stand for her television (a very nice Westinghouse 42-inch 1080p model which is unfortunately not well served by the local cable service). I brought some tools with me, but had to pick up a rubber mallet to tap the front bar of a futon into place. ‘Tap’ being a relative term, with ‘wham’ being perhaps more appropriate. A local liquidation store, Big Lots, was the source of inexpensive tools to leave behind – screwdrivers, pliers and so on – for Katherine to use for later work.

We found a dining table at Pier 1, but getting it back to the apartment was a bit of a problem – it wouldn’t fit in the rental car, and definitely wouldn’t fit in my daughter’s runabout. We turned to Home Depot for their truck rental by the hour, and found my Canadian driver’s license (more particularly the postal code) wasn’t recognised by their computer, and so we had to fall back on my daughter’s license. In addition, the truck itself was pre-booked the first time we tried for it, and we had to come back the next day. Even with this inconvenience we we able to get everything back to her apartment within a day, so there was no major delay.

Mention of the Pier 1 and Home Depot brings home the fact that our economy is integrated across the continent – I could have purchased the same items in Toronto at the same stores. There is a sizable outlet mall here in Camarillo, but the stores are the same as in Toronto, and I could go to equivalent malls there. As we homogenise the retail base across the continent the shopping rationale sometimes offered for travel fades away, and we are left with the notion of travelling to see new sights and meet new people. What an odd concept!

The temperatures and weather in general in Camarillo have been little short of ideal for the last few days. Yesterday was perhaps a little too warm, but the evening soon cooled back down to a comfortable level, and the hazy skies cleared up to reveal the moon and stars. While I am close to the center of Camarillo (insofar as it has a center) visibility is good compared to suburban Woodbridge – magnitude 3 compared to magnitude 1 skies. Outside of Camarillo the sky is Bortle 5 at the most. On the other hand getting out of town is a little difficult – the area is only semi-rural, with many small towns within a few miles of each other.

As if to offset the great weather we’ve been having, the prediction is for increasing cloud cover, and the day of the Mercury transit itself is supposed to be partly cloudy. I will be setting up for visual observing only – I don’t expect to be ready to catch first contact (though I will be watching for it about 11.12 am) and while the sun will still be above the horizon at fourth contact, it will not be up by much. Sunset is at 4.58 pm local time, and fourth contact will be about 4.10 pm). My hope remains that I will be able to view the transit through gaps in the clouds.

Dateline Camarillo: Transit day

It is November 8 and as I write the transit starts in about an hour and forty minutes. The sky in Camarillo is clear and cloudless. I will update from time to time during the event, but I only plan active observing for the few minutes around contact times.

12.50: I set up and found a nice little prominence on the eastern limb of the sun, and a much foreshortened sunspot group opposite, very near to the place where Mercury eventually appeared on the solar disk. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly) I missed 1st contact, and nearly missed 2nd contact – Mercury is small against the face of the sun, and I didn’t see it until just about the time of second contact, which I called on my watch at 11.13.25, which adjusted for the offset on my watch puts it at 11.14.40 or so. Not particularly precise, but consistent with the predicted time. The planetary disk was too small to make out second contact reliably – I would need a shorter focus eyepiece to increase magnification, and I have nothing suitable.

I did manage to capture images of the sun, though I blew out the solar disk, I think – the sunspot group is simply invisible in the full image from which this small section was taken:

Solar prominences

A few minutes before the transit began, image captured using a Nikon 950 camera, Coronado PST, Scopetronics 40 mm eyepiece. About 0.026 seconds – ok for prominences, not so good for the disk

I have pulled out a very fuzzy image of the sunspot by working the image very hard, but Mercury itself is nowhere in sight on any of the images (and this one, the best of the lot, was taken before the transit, so fat chance there). The sun was bright enough to completely wash out the camera display, so I was operating semi-blind in the capture. I set the camera on ‘auto’ for exposure and focus, using a projection eyepiece to get the afocal image from the Coronada PST into the camera. I skipped the middle of the transit – I’m supposed to be helping my wife help my daughter in setting up her apartment, which entails a lot of driving around to stores to pick out (and pick up) furniture and accessories (everything from can-openers to table mats!), so the transit is strictly a sideshow. I will set up again for third and fourth contact, but not in the same place as before. The sun will be quite low in the sky by that time and it’s hard to find a place in the apartment complex which has a good sightline to the sun.

16.25: AARGH! I basically lost the third and fourth contact! While I had a site picked out to accomodate the long shadows of the late afternoon, I was unable to use it – a truck parked in a nearby parking lot blocked the remaining sightline to the sun, and the accessible sites were pretty much all in shade. I set up in one spot but not soon enough for timing the third contact, and fourth contact was impossible to distinguish due to the shimmer of the air over the buildings. Wait till next time [May of 2016]!