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If you’ve never seen Mercury, this week is a great time to try.
Over the past few weeks, observers worldwide have been following the outstanding tight triple conjunction of Mercury, Venus and Jupiter low to the west at dusk.
Jupiter has exited the evening sky, headed for conjunction with the Sun on June 19th. I caught what was probably our last glimpse of Jupiter for the season clinging to the murky horizon through binoculars just last week. If you’re “Jonesin’ for Jove,” you can follow its progress this week through superior conjunction as it transits the Solar Heliospheric Observatory’s LASCO C3 camera.
This leaves the two innermost worlds of our fair solar system visible low to the west at dusk. And tonight, they’re joined by a very slender waxing crescent Moon, just over two days after New phase.
The evening of June 10th finds a 4% illuminated Moon passing just over 5 degrees (about 10 Full Moon diameters) south of Venus and Mercury. Venus will be the first to appear as the sky darkens, shining at magnitude -3.9 and Mercury will shine about 40 times fainter above it at magnitude +0.3.
Ashen light, also known as Earthshine will also be apparent on the darkened limb of the Moon. Another old-time term for this phenomenon is “the Old Moon in the New Moon’s Arms.” Ashen light is caused by sunlight being reflected off of the Earth and illuminating the nighttime Earthward facing portion of the Moon. Just how prominent this effect appears can vary depending on the total amount of cloud cover on the Earth’s Moonward facing side.
This week sets the stage for the best dusk apparition of Mercury for northern hemisphere viewers in 2013. Orbiting the Sun every 88 Earth days, we see Mercury either favorably placed east of the Sun in the dusk sky or west of the Sun in the dawn sky roughly six times a year. Mercury’s orbit is markedly elliptical, and thus not all apparitions are created the same. An elongation near perihelion, when Mercury is 46 million kilometers from the Sun, can mean its only 17.9 degrees away from the Sun as viewed from the Earth. An elongation near aphelion, 69.8 million kilometers distant, has a maximum angular separation of 27.8 degrees.
This week’s greatest elongation of 24.3 degrees occurs on June 12th. It’s not the most extreme value for 2013, but does have another factor going for it; the angle of the ecliptic. As we approach the solstice of June 21st, the plane of the solar system as traced out by the orbit of the Earth is at a favorable angle relative to the horizon. Thus, an observer from 35 degrees north latitude sees Mercury 18.4 degrees above the horizon at sunset, while an observer at a similar latitude in the southern hemisphere only sees it slightly lower at 16.9 degrees.
Venus and the Moon make great guides to locate Mercury over the next few nights. It’s said that Copernicus himself never saw Mercury with his own eyes, though this oft repeated tale is probably apocryphal.
We also get a shot at a skewed “emoticon conjunction” tonight, not quite a “smiley face” (: as occurred between Jupiter, Venus and the Moon in 2008, but more of a “? :” Stick around until February 13th, 2056 and you’ll see a much tighter version of the same thing! A time exposure of a pass of the International Space Station placed near Mercury and Venus could result in a planetary “meh” conjunction akin to a “/:” Hey, just throwing that obscure challenge out there. Sure, there’s no scientific value to such alignments, except as testimony that the universe may just have a skewed sense of humor…
Through the telescope, Venus currently shows a 10” diameter gibbous phase, while Mercury is only slightly smaller at 8” and is just under half illuminated. No detail can be discerned on either world, as a backyard telescope will give you the same blank view of both worlds that vexed astronomers for centuries. These worlds had to await the dawn of the space age to give up their secrets. NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft entered a permanent orbit around Mercury in 2011, and continues to return some outstanding science.
Both planets are catching up to us from the far side of their orbits. Mercury will pass within 2 degrees of Venus on June 20th, making for a fine wide field view in binoculars.
And now for the wow factor of what you’re seeing tonight. The Moon just passed apogee on June 9th and is currently about 416,500 kilometers or just over one light second distant. Mercury meanwhile, is 0.86 astronomical units (A.U.), or almost 133 million kilometers, or about 7 light minutes away. Finally, Venus is currently farther away from the Earth than the Sun at 1.59 A.U.s, or about 13.7 light minutes distant.
All this makes for a great show in the dusk skies this week. And yes, lunar apogee just after New sets us up for the closest Full Moon of 2013 (aka the internet sensation known as the “Super Moon”) on June 23rd. More to come on that soon!