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Mercury seen from near and far…

It’s now just two days – two days! – until NASA’s MESSENGER probe opens its eyes and starts taking the most detailed photos of the surface of Mercury ever seen. It entered orbit a few days ago, but since then it has been given a rigorous shake-down and check by its team of scientists and engineers, and all has gone well. Next the probe’s cameras will be switched on, and MESSENGER will begin taking fantastically detailed pictures of the planet’s craters, cliffs and valleys. I can’t wait!

What makes this so much more exciting is the fact that we can see Mercury itself in the sky at the moment. It takes a little bit of work and planning – because it’s so close to the Sun it can only be seen immediately after sunset, low in the west, so seeing it means finding an observing site that’s both high up and enjoys an uncluttered, flat, western horizon – but it’s not that difficult, and anyone who wants to can see Mercury for themselves over the next week or two, looking like a “star” low in west, in the marmalade-orange glow of dusk.

Earlier this week I went on a Mercury-hunting expedition myself. The obvious place to try and see it from was Kendal Castle – it’s one of the highest points in Kendal I can reach on foot, and the view out across the town from there is beautiful – so I trekked up there with camera and binoculars to track down the planet and, hopefully, get some pictures of it, too. I just liked the idea of taking pictures of Mercury as MESSENGER is preparing to dothe same thing, it seemed appropriate somehow.

So, despite having a really panful knee (pauses for “awwwwww!”s from readers… no? Oh well, suit yourselves!) I headed up to the castle and, reaching the summit of the hill on which its ruins stand, set up my camera and tripod, got out the binoculars, and started to sweep the western sky, which was glowing a beautiful orange-blue colour.

It took me about twenty minutes more to find Mercury, because it was further over to the west than I had realised, but once I fund it in the binoculars it was time to start taking photos. This wasn’t easy, as the background sky was still very bright, so there was a lot of trial and error involved with different apertures and exposures, a lot of “mucking about” generally, but eventually I managed to get a couple of decent shots of Mercury hanging and shining above the distant, tree-lined horizon. This is the best one (you might need to enlarge it, by clicking on it, to reveal Mercury)…

Then I thought I’d try and be a bit creative…

The ruins of Kendal Castle are gorgeous, photogenic in their own right. But put them in front of a beautiful sunset…and a planet, or the Moon… and they become magical. I thought that, if I was lucky, Mercury would be peeping through a gap between one of the castle’s towers and a large neighbouring tree, so I grabbed up my gear and headed into the castle itself. I found a good spot, turned to the west – yes! There was Mercury! Faint, but there…

Camera swung around… and the batteries died. Sigh. Fished about in my jacket for some more, slotted them into the camera faster than Jack Bauer reloading during a shoot-out with terrorists, and started clicking away…

Here’s the best of the bunch. Again you will REALLY need to enlarge it to see Mercury, because by this time the planet was very low and its brightness was being further reduced by some near-horizon haze, but it’s there… honest… trust me…

So, there you have it. Mercury, seen just days before it is seen in a LOT more detail by a newly-arrived spaceprobe.

Quite pleased with those pictures. Getting them was worth the pain I felt moments later, after stepping into mid-air off a low wall I thought was this high but was actually THIS high… 🙂


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