Observation Log 2/27/06: 19°F, spotted Mercury, but didn’t catch SuitSat (visually)

Mercury is just past its greatest eastern elongation (eastern means visible at night, western elongation is visible before sunrise), so I spent the afternoon driving around, looking for an observation spot with a clear view to 255° azimuth (where the sun sets today). I found a beauty, right next to a police station. I came back at the appointed time, bagged Mercury, but missed SuitSat, which was supposed to pass almost directly overhead.

When I found the site, which is only 20 minutes from home, I was very happily surprised. It’s a direct view to the west, unobstructed by houses or trees, all the way to a hilly horizon about 5 miles away. Even better, there’s a sidewalk about 12′ above the road surface, so I’m not in the way of traffic.

When I set up at 5:45 with chair, tripod, and both sets of binoculars, I didn’t spot anything for 10 minutes of so. Then came a series of planes arriving from the west, each with their landing lights on, faking me out. Finally, at 6:11, I spotted Mercury and watched for another 25 minutes or so.

I had scoped out the evening with Starry Night before I left home, and set my watch alarm to go off when SuitSat was supposed to begin being visible (according to Starry Night). I think the program was too optimistic, since it calculated that SuitSat would be -1.11 magnitude when it passed within 4 of Capella, which is 0.06 magnitude, and 6 of zenith. I had a clear view of Capella and watched carefully for five minutes before I finally gave up. Either I had monumentally bad luck, or SuitSat isn’t really a naked-eye satellite. On researching just now, it seems there has only been one actual sighting, and a photographic one at that. So, it really is a lot dimmer than I’d expected.

The only other bit of excitement was with the police. When I found the observation spot, I played it safe and asked permission to use the public sidewalk tonight to spot Mercury. The policewoman I spoke to was very pleasant, and said no problem, just be sure my car wasn’t obstructing traffic. I found a plowed-out spot off the road and used it, leaving my parking lights on just in case. As I was walking back to my car in the dark, figuring I’d had enough bone chilling for one night, a cruiser spotted my car, turned on his blue strobe lights, turned a spotlight on my car, and pulled up behind it, presumably to check the plates. I very cautiously came around the back of the cruiser, stood 10 feet from the driver’s door, and politely tried to get the attention of the officer. It took a minute, since he was communicating with the station, I presume. When he finally rolled down his window, I explained it was my car, that I’d asked permission at the station a few hours before, and that I was just heading home after some stargazing. He was polite, and said he just wanted to be sure I was OK, and I thanked him before he left.

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