I’m 90% certain that I managed to (barely) spot Mercury below and to the left of Venus from the grocery store parking lot just after sunset. Appropriately enough, the one other time I think I spotted Mercury, it was also from a grocery store parking lot.

It was like trying to spot one slightly brighter pixel on a high-resolution display in the middle of a gradient. Faint enough that if I hadn’t seen it in the same place each time I looked, I would have dismissed it as something in my eye, or part of an after-image. I couldn’t really see much more than the fact that there was something there where Google Sky Map said Mercury should be.

It’s really neat that Jupiter and Venus sort of bracketed the twilight sky!

NeptuneThis morning I saw some wavy clouds that reminded me of the patterns you see in pictures of Jupiter. I started thinking about gas giant planets, and had an odd moment of realization: when I was a kid, astronomy books didn’t have actual photos of Uranus or Neptune. They couldn’t have — there weren’t any! There were nice photos of Jupiter and Saturn from the Voyager missions, but Voyager 2 didn’t reach Uranus until 1986, or Neptune until 1989.

The really weird thing, though: modern astronomy books do have photos of Neptune — but the ones for general audiences probably all use the same picture I got as a framed poster when I was in high school. We haven’t been back in 20 years. Jupiter and Saturn have gotten a lot of attention, partly because they’re a lot closer and partly because their ring and moon systems are so fascinating. So we have a more continuous view of those planets and how they change over time.

Neptune? One snapshot (metaphorically speaking) of the planet from 20 years ago. Everything before and everything since then has been done with telescopes. Even the Hubble barely has the resolution to tell that the Great Dark Spot broke up sometime between 1989 and 1994. That’s something that maybe shouldn’t have surprised anyone, given how quickly storms form and dissipate on Earth, but back in 1989 it seemed so much like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (going on 400 years or longer) that it was easy to think it too would be persistent.

It’s a good reminder that the universe beyond Earth does change with the passage of time…even on a human scale.

This is actually from a couple of nights ago, but the view as I left the office tonight was about the same (though the lights were just starting to turn on in this picture).

Jupiter and Venus silhouetted against trees

It’s really odd to walk out of the building into a lot that’s normally lighted (even when I head in to do emergency server maintenance at midnight) and see it completely dark.

Well, not completely dark. There was a little light leaking from windows behind me, and streetlights filtering through trees, and what I could see of the sign on the building across the street. Nothing compared to some of the camping trips I’ve been on, or the drive through Ka‘u at night. But for a suburban office building, it was a change.

Edit: Oops! For some reason I’ve been convinced that this was Saturn, but it’s actually Jupiter.