Inner Bodies

Observing notes from Wednesday, April 24, 1996

Inner Bodies??? That sounds like the title for some kind of horror movie with little, scaly creatures popping from the chests of their hapless victims. Sorry to disappoint all of you Alien fans, but the inner bodies I'm speaking of are the celestial ones inside the orbit of Earth.

The day of April 24 was a crystal clear day, with a deep blue sky. I printed out a start chart with three objects in mind: Comet Hyakutake, Mercury, and Venus. As the Sun neared the western horizon, the sky started clouding up!! The weatherman had definitely said clear skies. I was stomping around the house, looking out the windows, and uttering profane syllables while I considered calling the weatherman to give him a piece of my mind and tell him that my grandmother could predict the weather better than him by looking at the underbelly of a cricket and the pattern of tea leaves in a cup. But, before I could find the phone number, the Sun dropped below the horizon and the sky cleared up wonderfully. I grabbed my 10x50 binoculars, my 80mm refractor, and my starchart and headed outside.

A waxing crescent Moon hung in the darkening twilight and a brilliant Venus looked down on at least one smiling observer. Since Mercury was suppose to be putting on its most favorable apparition of the year, I wanted to catch a glimpse of it. I tried to track down Mercury once when I was about 12 or 13. I saw something then, but wasn't sure what. This night there was a "star" glowing brightly in the location that Mercury was suppose to be in. I couldn't imagine Mercury being so bright. I decided to save the "star" for telescopic scrutiny later because I needed to track down Comet Hyakutake.

It took a while, but Hyakutake finally popped into the view of my 10x50 binoculars. It glowed feebly in the evening twilight. It was very low, just above the tree tops. The nucleus or coma was very bright. I could just make out about ½ to ¾ degree of the tail. Remember that this was in a sky glowing with the evening twilight. The tail has really brightened over the last couple of weeks. I attribute this to more dust being in the tail due to the comet nearing the Sun. I'd really like to observe it after it rounds the sun, but this will be a southern hemisphere event unfortunately (fortunate for those down under). If any fellow northern hemisphere observers want to take a final look at Comet Hyakutake, you've only got a few days left.

The time came to see if that bright "star" was really the fleet footed Mercury. The low power eyepiece on my 80mm refractor seemed to hint at a planetary disk. I boosted the power up to about 95x. Bingo, Mercury wasn't fast enough to get away from me!!! The tiny, half lit disk was easily visible. I really couldn't decide on what color it was since it was distorted so much by the atmosphere. I would describe the color any where from light gray to pink. The atmosphere probably had a lot to do with the color I was seeing. The color of Mercury is always described as leaden in books. I don't know why, but I was expecting it to be red like Mars. This planet is so tiny and far away that only the phases can be observed by amateur astronomers. Of course, to make matters worst, it never wanders very far from the sun in the sky. I still count myself as lucky for having seen this sometimes elusive, inner solar system body.

Next up on my journey through the inner regions of the solar system was Venus. No searching of the sky is needed for this object. The bright beacon of Venus finds you! Through the telescope Venus displayed a waning crescent phase. The phase actually closely matched the current phase of the Moon. It was a pretty neat view to look through the telescope at Venus, then step away and glance at the Moon overhead. I'm looking forward to observing Venus in the coming weeks as it grows in angular diameter, yet the phase gets smaller.

I finished out the night by scanning the Moon with my 80mm refractor. I didn't do any detailed observing. I just marveled at the craters, mountains, and craters as I zoomed overhead. The Moon is always such a visual treat that I can hardly pass it up.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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