Friday, February 8, 2013

Observing Mercury

It's a snowy afternoon here in the Hudson Valley as a massive nor'easter pounds the entire Northeast.  I haven't posted for a bit since work has been incredibly busy but today's a good day to catch up on stuff as I sit next to a warm fire, a fresh pot of coffee brewing, and the electricity and internet still working!

One of the classes I'm teaching this semester is solar system astronomy.  Because of this, I've been keeping my eye on astronomical events a bit more than usual, especially those related to our celestial neighborhood.

Mercury is one of the classical naked eye planets.  These are the planets known to all ancient cultures that observed the night sky and saw that five "stars" in the sky behaved completely differently from all the others and changed their positions from night to night (or week to week, depending).  As a matter of fact, the word planet comes from the Greek planētēs (πλανήτης) or "wanderer."  Today we know those five "stars" as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

Mercury is the most difficult of the five to observe.  This is because it's the planet closest to the Sun so it can only be seen just after sunset (as it's setting in the west in the twighlit sky) or early in the morning rising just before the Sun and soon washing out in the dawn.  While difficult to observe, it's certainly not impossible, and this month presents a opportunity.  And, as an added bonus, it will be in conjunction with the planet Mars.

The 11th or 12th, Monday or Tuesday night, might be the best to try (assuming it's clear) since you just may be able to make out the very, very thin sliver of the waning crescent Moon.  Here's the view from my house at 6:00 pm EST looking west on the 11th.

You obviously need a clear view of the western horizon.

1 comment:

  1. I've only seen it once, but I'll have a fair opportunity next week in Death Valley. Thanks for the info. Stay warm and dry this week! Like geoblogger Lockwood said, "Nemo found you"...