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Mercury is one of the 5 planets visible with the unaided eye. Even thousands of years ago, ancient astronomers knew that the 5 wanderers were different from the other stars in the sky. The 5 planets visible with the unaided eye are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. They gave them distinct names, and charted their positions with incredible accuracy. It’s impossible to say “when was Mercury discovered”, since that would have been before recorded history.
But when did astronomers realize that Mercury was a planet? That happened with Copernicus developed his model of a Sun-centered Solar System, published in 1543. With the Sun at the center of the Solar System, and not the Earth, it meant that both the Earth and Mercury were planets. This discovery was confirmed when Galileo first turned his telescope on the planets and realized they matched predictions made by Copernicus. Unfortunately, Galileo’s telescope wasn’t powerful enough to reveal a disk for Mercury, but it did show how Venus went through phases like the Moon.
This model was backed up by Galileo, who pointed his first rudimentary telescope at Mercury in the 17th century. Unfortunately his telescope wasn’t powerful enough to see Mercury go through phases like he saw with Venus.
Because it’s so small and close to the Sun, Mercury was difficult to observe with ground-based telescopes. More powerful telescopes only revealed a small grey disk; they didn’t have the resolution to display features on the planet’s surface, like craters or lava fields.
It wasn’t until the early 1960s when radio astronomers started bouncing signals off the surface of Mercury that more information was finally known about the planet. These signals revealed that Mercury’s day length is about 59 days. Even more detailed observations have been made with the Arecibo telescope, mapping surface features down to a resolution of 5 km.
The most detailed observations of Mercury have come from the exploration from spacecraft sent from Earth. NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft swept past Mercury in 1974, capturing images from an altitude of just 327 km. It eventually mapped about half of the planet in unprecedented detail, revealing that the planet looked very similar to the Earth’s moon, with many impact craters and ancient lava fields.
If you’re wondering who discovered the element mercury, nobody knows that either. The element has been known for thousands of years, and was used by the ancient Chinese. Liquid mercury was found in Egyptian tombs closed up almost 4,000 years ago.
We have also recorded a whole episode of Astronomy Cast that’s just about planet Mercury. Listen to it here, Episode 49: Mercury.