06 Feb 2013

Composite image of Mercury taken by the MESSENGER mission (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)

Want to catch a glimpse of a planet few people have knowingly seen? For viewers at mid-northern latitudes, next week offers 2013’s best evening apparition of Mercury. About 45 minutes after sunset, try looking for Mercury as a pinpoint of light low in the west, above the spot where the Sun set.

It will be easier to see Mercury starting around Feb. 9, 2013, but if skies are clear where you live it’s definitely worth trying Feb. 7 and 8, when Mercury meets up with Mars in evening twilight. Look low in the west about a half hour after sunset, and use binoculars to help you spot dimmer Mars. Both those evenings the two planets are well within one degree of each other—less than the width of your pinky finger when held at arm’s length.

Why is Mercury usually a difficult planet to observe? As the innermost planet to the Sun, Mercury never appears to stray far from the Sun in our sky. So it can become visible only low in the west just after sunset, or low in the east just before sunrise.

To join the club of people who have knowingly seen Mercury, please join Morehead for a skywatching session the evening of Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. Weather permitting, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. we’ll be at Jordan Lake, at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. This site provides an excellent view of the western horizon over the lake. To see Mercury before it sets, arrive near the beginning of the session.

If you miss Mercury in the evening sky this month, try again in late May through mid-June.



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