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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Seeing Mercury, and a smoky sky

Last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were beautiful days - during the day. But as the sun sank in the west the clouds began to gather. It even snowed sporadically Saturday afternoon. The net result: no chance to view the planet Mercury, particularly during its spectacular pairing with a very young New Moon Friday night.

The past two nights have been a different story. Yesterday I had a big afternoon planned: race from work to Sam's Club to get some photos developed. Kill the next hour with some shopping, including picking up an Adirondack chair at A.C. Moore and getting a big ol' box of wine from the liquor store (5 liters of Cabernet Sauvignon - for my heart, dontcha know.) Then hurry back to Sam's Club to get the photos. A lot of this urgency had to do with the fact that the parking lots of Sam's Club and A.C. Moore have prime views of the western horizon, obstructed by nothing but the mountains in the far distance. So each stop at a parking lot was an opportunity to check for Mercury.

The drive from work was interesting in itself. I left before the sun was below the local horizon - the mountains are a lot closer where I work, and the sun dips below them well before the advertised sunset time. The ride home, while nominally south along Interstate 81, is actually more west-by-southwest, which means that these days the sun is usually in front of me or off to my right - depending on which particular geological feature the highway is swinging around. About halfway along my trip the sun finally passed out of view and was replaced by the oddest sun pillar I have ever seen - a stocky, wispy thing, seemingly made from clouds hanging low in the west, it looked more like a good-sized fire on the horizon than the red searchlight beams I'm used to.

By the time I got to Sam's Club the first time - around 6:10 P.M. - the sky was beginning to darken, but there was no sign of Mercury. Ditto when I exited the store a few minutes later, having dropped off my film at the one-hour processing desk. I drove the half-mile or so to the complex housing A.C. Moore and the liquor store, but couldn't see anything from their parking lot, either. I even moved my car to an isolated, poorly lit section of the lot probably intended for employee parking, which happened to afford the best view of the western sky, without the worst of the glare of the lights from the rest of the lot. In this case the glare and skyglow were working in my favor: Mercury is marginally brighter than anything else currently low in the west just after sunset, so if you could see anything, it was probably Mercury. But still, nada. Zip. Nothing.

My purchases made and my hour killed, I made it back to the Sam's Club parking lot at about 7:15 and scanned the sky one last time. And now - success! There it was, low in the west, glittering with a fitful brightness. Pretty. I went in and got my pictures. (I posted some of them last night.)

This evening was a little more straightforward. I got home about 15 minutes after sunset and the sky looked weird. There was a sort of smokiness to it, even though it had appeared very clear just a few minutes earlier. The west especially seemed kind of smoggy, and even well after the sky had gone dark the blackness in the west seemed to retain a reddish hue. (Hey hey hey, I've sussed it! Maybe. I was just thinking - what could cause that appearance? A distant forest fire? A volcano? Oh, yeah. Mount St. Helens just spewed out some stuff last week on the other end of the continent. Could that be it?)

I checked on the sky every few minutes after I got home, and finally worked out where I would probably see Mercury - in a small region framed by a tall evergreen, a corner streetlight, and two telephone wires. And damned if it wasn't there! Ka-ching! Another check in my mental I-saw-Mercury tally. I think that brings it to, like, five or six times.

Now I'm more interested in whether the smoky-looking sky was the result of volcanic activity. I wonder if anyone else took note of it?

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