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Touring the Skies By Jim Bonser (

October 31, 2019
Northern-Sun Print
Ps. 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Amateur Astronomy is an activity that is quite closely tied to the weather. My wife Deb has rekindled her interest in sewing lately and in many ways, I envy her. The equipment is not a lot cheaper. In fact, I was astonished at the cost of modern sewing machines and when it comes to embroidery machines and quilting machines, don’t even ask! Or at least, be sitting down. However, she can work on her projects whether the skies are clear or cloudy and it makes absolutely no difference to her what the phase of the Moon is; she just happily goes about her cutting and measuring and sewing just humming and having a great time! I on the other hand am completely at the mercy of the weather. You might call me crazy, but I think the weather knows it and has a mean streak besides! Why do I say this? Because the skies can be the clearest, deepest most beautifully blue all day long and then, just before sunset, the western horizon will begin to look a little white. And then, just after sunset, here they come. Just a few at first, but then a stampede of evil fluffy clouds that crowd together and soon block the entire sky. I know, I know, I sound paranoid, but it happens way too often to be counted as pure coincidence to me! Why is this on my mind, you ask? Well, because this month, on November 11th, the tiny planet Mercury is going to pass exactly between us and the Sun. Astronomers call this event a ‘transit’. Of course, Mercury passes between us and the Sun every time Mercury completes one of its orbits but usually, Mercury is above or below the Sun from our point of view on Earth so a transit doesn’t happen. The last time Mercury transited the Sun was in May of 2016. Sadly, the evil clouds blocked the event here in Iowa. Mercury won’t transit the Sun again until November of 2032. So, you can understand why the topic of clouds is on my mind! I know viewing the transit this year is a long shot because according to statistics compiled by Dr. Brian Brettschneider, November is one of the cloudiest months of the year for us in Iowa. He says it is cloudy 70 percent of the time! Remember, it is never safe to look directly at the Sun. If you have a pair of Eclipse glasses in a drawer somewhere from the 2017 Solar eclipse, you may use them, but Mercury will appear as just a teeny tiny dot, just 1/194th of the size of the sun. If you want to watch in person, your best bet would be to see if your local astronomy club is planning an event to view the transit using a telescope outfitted with a safe solar filter. The first sign of Mercury crossing the Sun’s disk will be at about 6:36 a.m. which is about 20 minutes before sunrise for me near Marshalltown, Iowa. Mercury will be closest to the center of the Sun at about 9:20 a.m. and it will exit the Sun’s disk at about 12:04 p.m. These are approximate Central Standard Times. If you live significantly East or West of Marshalltown, your times may vary a little so for the most accurate times use a planetarium program such as TheSky or Starry Nights or Cartes du Ciel which is free (computer) or the free version of SkySafari (cell phone). Another option may be to view in real time online at a site like The Virtual Telescope Project ( which will be streaming the event live. Let’s hope SOMEBODY has clear skies to view this cool event! Jupiter and Saturn are the only planets visible in the evening sky this month. Both of them are getting low in the southwest after sunset. Jupiter sets about 7:00 p.m. midmonth and Saturn just a little more than an hour later so don’t wait too long after sunset to catch them. Leonid meteors peak on the 18th, but the Moon will be a bright waning gibbous which will wipe out all but the brightest this year. Clear Skies (especially on the 11th)!

Article Photos

This was taken with an Explore Scientific 80mm telescope (ES80ED) and a ZWO ASI071 CMOS digital camera. It is a stack of 17 300 second exposures. Stacked with DeepSkyStacker and processed in Images Plus and Photoshop. I was hoping to capture a little more detail in the swirling dust lanes near the core. The 80mm scope did pretty good, but my 8” SCT did better. I may try combining them and see what happens. Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the image and amazed at what can be done with such a small telescope.



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