Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Planet Mercury At Greatest Eastern Elongation

Look due south in the evening sky this month and you can't fail to see the spectacular sight of the planets Venus and Jupiter in close conjunction. Look to the east later in the night and you can also see a spectacular view of Mars, shining a bright copper red in the constellation of Leo. But they're just the obvious ones. With a little bit of effort, you can also get a rare glimpse of Mercury: the most elusive planet you can see with the naked eye.

Mercury is the closest planet to the sun and is usually lost to view in the solar glare; however, there are a few times each year when the planet is at the farthest point in its orbit from the sun (as viewed from here on Earth) and can briefly be seen, either just before sunrise, or just after sunset. At the moment, Mercury is at its greatest eastern elongation, which means that you have a window of about an hour to spot it in the early evening sky - assuming the weather is favourable of course.

So, find yourself a clear view of the southwestern horizon and start looking after the sunset from about 6.45 pm onwards, when the sky should be just about dark enough. Mercury will be low down, close to where the sun has just set and well below Venus and Jupiter. It will be the only star-like object visible in that area of sky.

I went looking for Mercury myself this evening and finally spotted it just after 7.00 pm, at about 10 degrees above the horizon. Once you've clocked Mercury, it is quite distinctive and looks like a pale, solitary star with a slightly pinkish hue. You will have to look hard to find it, but it isn't something you can see every day, so why not give it a shot? Mercury is visible until March 10th when it will be too close to the sun once again. And even if you can't make it out, you can always enjoy watching the beautiful stars of Orion, Canis Major and Taurus as they magically appear in the darkening skies.

Hokusai At Durham Oriental Museum

If you're thinking of visiting the new Hokusai exhibition at Durham's Oriental Museum, be warned that it is rather small in scale. Contrary to popular belief though, size isn't everything and it does compensate with the quality of the rare Hokusai prints on display and some interesting information on how these exquisite Japanese artworks from the 19th Century were actually produced. There's also an amusing selection of 'shobungo' to be savoured, including the legendary print of a young lady in flagrante with a steamed-up cephalopod. Suddenly, your visit looks essential!

As well as the Hokusai exhibition, this museum is one of Durham City's hidden treasures, with a truly fabulous collection of ceramics, furniture and art in its Chinese galleries. And if that's not enough, there's also some splendid Indian artefacts and a room or two of finds from the desert sands of Ancient Egypt, including the splendid funerary mask below. Thanks to Jo for the pic.

Electric Psychedelic Sitar Headswirlers Vols 1-5

After years of collecting 'Nuggets, 'Pebbles', 'Boulders', 'Rubble' and all those other great compilations of obscure 60s psychedelia, the last thing I was expecting to find was a five CD gold-mine of stuff I'd never heard before. So, I was delighted to come across this amazing new box-set in all its electric, psychedelic, sitaric and indeed headswirlic glory. You'll find none of the well-known sitar hits here from the likes of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Donovan etc; instead, you will voyage to a wondrous, incense-reeking underworld of Z-grade sitarsploitation. The sleeve-notes give brief information on the likes of Saffron, The Frederic, Kahli Bahlu et al, but who cares really, as it all seamlessly blends into one glorious droning freak-out (which is hardly surprising, when the modally-tuned sitar only has two melody strings and never changes key). Even when the bands here are known from other contexts e.g. Them, Lemon Pipers and The Strawberry Alarm Clock, the track chosen will be an obscure one, or by some unfamiliar line-up of the group. Some are camp, some are early fusion records and some are recent revisitings of this classic 60s sound. There is even music here (like 'Flowers In The Air' by Golden Dawn member Sally Eaton) that offers something genuinely ecstatic. Best of all, there are another five albums available in the series and more in the pipeline. All the more reason to drone on, tune up and joss out...