Location/time: Cold Ashton, 1800-1900
Equipment: 15×70 Bins, 5″ Mak
Weather: very cold, strong westerly wind
With Mercury reaching its greatest elongation from the Sun, I was keen to see this elusive little planet, which is the closest to the Sun and therefore very hard to see. But where to go to get a good look? The horizon where I live is cluttered with buildings, and there are no significant hills nearby. After spending a little time on Google Earth I settled on Tog Hill viewpoint, which I knew had an excellent West horizon, allowing you to see all the way to Wales on a clear day. However, I had been warned by a couple of people that it is also a notorious cruising site. Well, I thought, it won’t even be dark so I’m unlikely to be bothered.
On arriving it became clear that I had miscalculated. There were around 15 cars there when I arrived, each occupied by a single male. Not fancying the idea of being watched by so many eyes, I drove round to my “plan B” location, a farmtrack just down the road on the aptly-named Freezinghill Lane. That’s better – no cars, no audience, and a good horizon. By now the front that had brought so much rain earlier in the day had cleared east, and the sun had just set, leaving a virtually clear sky and a rather lovely sunset.
Now I had expected it to be cold, but not this cold – and the wind! It was fair rattling my teeth. Nevertheless, I set the Mak up with my Baader Hyperion zoom, and then began sweeping the area 15° above the horizon with the bins. Jupiter and Venus were making an increasingly fine sight above me, but no Merc… hang on! After about 5 minutes I picked it up in the bins, a slightly off-white star – no sign of a disc at 15 power. At this point it was just naked eye, but easily lost again.
Switching to the Mak revealed a very small disc-like object. Zooming in to 12mm - in the moments when the wind died enough for things to stay still - showed a definite phase, like a small venus, but zooming further meant the view collapsed into a blur of atmospherically-driven chromatic aberration and wind-powered wobbles. So I zoomed back out.
But nevertheless I had seen it! Over the next 15 minutes it became increasingly obvious to the naked eye, although only a very dim star compared to the powerhouse of Venus and its merely bright neighbour, Jupiter. The telescopic view did not improve – indeed as the planet sank further into our atmosphere it got worse. However the naked eye vista by 1830 was very nice, so I took out my smartphone, braced myself against the wind as best I could, and rattled off a series of shots. Here is the best one, with Mercury a single pixel…
By this point, despite the balaclava, hat, salopettes and two pairs of gloves I was beginning to lose my extremities to the cold, and potentially my dinner to the cat. Time to go home…