Any time I write or edit an observing article for the magazine or the website, I try to observe everything that's described. How else can I make sure the descriptions are accurate? And it provides a never-ending stream of new and different observing targets.Having written a web story urging people to look for the phases of Venus and Mercury, I felt obliged to try it myself. It's a handy little project, since I can do it in the park across the street on my way home from work. And it only requires staying outside briefly. So despite the fact that the temperature hasn't risen much above 20° F in the last week, with consistently strong winds, there's no need to dress up specially, as I would for an extended deep-sky observing session.
What's the verdict? It's easy enough to make out that Venus and Mercury are extended objects, but it's pretty hard to see their phases right now. (Venus will be a different story once it starts to get huge and thin in June and July.) Even when I start right at sunset, Venus and Mercury are already so low in the sky that their images dance around at 60x, and extra magnification just makes things worse. Still, after a few minutes of viewing, Mercury remains subtly but consistently flatter on the side facing away from the Sun. I'm hoping that the phase will get easier to see as it gets thinner.
It's also sobering just how hard it is to locate Mercury right after sunset. Venus is a piece of cake, but it's seven degrees from there to Mercury — a long, long hop through a telescope's eyepiece with nothing but blue sky to mark the way. I'm usually more than happy star-hopping through a telescope with a simple alt-azimuth mount, but a nice equatorial or Go To mount would be mighty handy for this particular job.
Update Feb. 10.
I went out well before sunset yesterday to give my scope plenty of time to cool down and to locate Mercury as early as possible. Blocking the Sun behind a convenient hill, Venus was easily visible 10 minutes before sunset, and I located Mercury in the scope 10 minutes after sunset, when it was still 15° up. In addition, the seeing was much better than on my previous two attempts, so I got a pretty steady view at 120X. Mercury appeared to be a precise half disk, though in fact that phase was 42%. I thought I saw the phase at 60X too, but I'm not sure.