How to See Planet Mercury at its Best in 2014

 There’s an often told anecdote that astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus never spied Mercury. And while this tale is almost certainly apocryphal, it does speak to just how elusive the innermost planet of our solar system really is.

Never seen Mercury for yourself? This final week of January offers a good time to try, as Mercury reaches greatest elongation east of the Sun on Friday, January 31st.

This will offer northern hemisphere viewers one on the best chances to spot the fleeting world low to the west immediately after local sunset. And although we get on average six apparitions of Mercury per year – three each in the dawn and dusk – all apparitions aren’t created equal.

The approximate moment of greatest elongation occurs on January 31st at 10:00 UT / 5:00 AM EST, when Mercury is 18.4 degrees east of the Sun. This is only 0.5 degrees shy of the smallest elongation for Mercury that can occur, as the planet reaches perihelion just three days later on February 3rd at 0.3075 Astronomical Units (AUs) from the Sun. The last time this was surpassed was the evening elongation of February 16th, 2013th, and the next time it’ll be topped is October 16th, 2015 at just 18.1 degrees from the Sun.

Path of Mercury from January 27th to February 12th. (Created using Starry Night).
Path of Mercury from January 27th to February 12th as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. (Created using Starry Night Education Software).

And though this elongation is closer than usual, this also works in the Mercury-spotter’s favor. At greatest elongation, Mercury will present a 50% illuminated 7 arc second disk, readily apparent in a small telescope. But a also means that Mercury will appear almost a full magnitude brighter than it does when it reaches greatest elongation near aphelion, as it last did on March 31st of last year, and will do again on March 14th of this year.

Mercury will shine at magnitude -0.4 low towards the west into this coming weekend. We managed to pick up Mercury with binoculars on January 16th and have since managed to start tracking the planet unaided since January 18th.

Mercury also has another factor going for it, in terms of the angle of the evening ecliptic. Following ahead of the Sun, Mercury occupies a space that the Sun will trace up its apparent path along the ecliptic as it begins its long slow crawl northward towards the Vernal Equinox on March 20th. This means that Mercury is almost perpendicular above the western horizon at dusk and is currently getting a maximum boost above the atmospheric murk.

Mercury also gets joined by a razor thin waxing crescent Moon just over 24 hours past New sliding by it on the evening of Friday, January 31st. Look for the Moon five degrees to the right of Mercury on the 31st. The Moon will be a much easier catch on the February 1st when its 10 degrees above Mercury. And can you spy the +1 magnitude star Fomalhaut in the constellation Piscis Austrinus just 20 degrees to the south of Mercury?

Stellarium
The orientation of the Moon and Mercury on the evening of February 1st. Credit: Stellarium.

And speaking of the Moon, this week’s New Moon is the second of the month, a feat that repeats in March 2014 and leaves the month of February “New Moon-less…” such an occurrence in either instance is informally known as a Black Moon.

Orbiting the Sun once every 88 days, Mercury completes about 4.15 circuits of the Sun for every Earth year. From our Earthbound vantage point, however, Mercury seems to only orbit the Sun 3.15 times a year. Thus 6 elongations (3 in the dusk and 3 in the dawn) will occur every year, through 7 can occur, as last happened in 2011 and will occur again next year in 2015.

August 15th, 2012.
Mercury (to the lower left) and the Moon on August 15th, 2012. (Photo by author).

After this weekend, Mercury will resume its plunge towards the horizon through early February. Mercury will begin retrograde (westward) apparent motion against the starry background on February 6th before resuming direct (eastward motion) on February 27th. And although astrologers may  find that “Mercury in retrograde” is a convenient “blame magnet,” they’re also falling prey to a logical fallacy known as retrofitting, as Mercury spends a longer fraction of time than any other planet “in retrograde” at about 20%!

From there, Mercury heads towards inferior conjunction between the Earth and the Sun on Saturday, February 15th, passing just 3.7 degrees north of the solar disk. You can catch Mercury entering into the field of view of the Solar Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) LASCO C3 camera from February 12th to February 18th.

And although Mercury misses this time, we’re not that far away from the next transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun on May 9th, 2016.

Up for more? An even tougher challenge is to attempt to spot Mercury… in the daytime. We’ve noted this possibility before as Mercury reaches maximum elongation from the Sun while still in the negative magnitude range. Of course, you want to physically block the Sun out of view, and don’t even try sweeping the sky near the Sun visually with binoculars or a telescope! You’ll need a clear, blue sky for maximum contrast and a polarizing filter may help in your quest… but this should be possible under exceptional conditions.

Good luck, and be sure to send those Mercury pics in to Universe Today!

Mercury’s False Moon: The Mercury/Mars Planetary Conjunction this Weekend

[/caption]

The history of astronomy is littered with astronomical objects in the solar system that have fallen to the wayside. These include fleeting sightings of Venusian moons, inter-mercurial planets, and even secondary moons of the Earth.

While none of these observations ever amounted to true discoveries, this weekend gives observers and astrophotographers a unique chance to “mimic” a spurious discovery that has dotted astronomical lore: a visual “pseudo-moon” for the planet Mercury. This “moon illusion” will occur on February 8, 2013 during the closest conjunction of two naked eye planets in 2013. February offers a chance to see the fleeting Mercury in the sky, and this conjunction with Mars will provide the opportunity to see how Mercury would look in the night sky if it had a moon!

Mercury has been suspected of having moons before. On March 29th 1974, the Mariner 10 spacecraft became the first mission to image the innermost world up close. Mariner 10 mapped 40-45% of Mercury on 3 successive passes, revealing a pock-marked world not that different than our own Moon. But Mariner 10 also detected something more: brief anomalies in the ultra-violet spectrum suggestive of a moon with a 3 day period. For a very brief time, Mercury was thought to have a moon of its own, and NASA nearly made a press release to this effect. The spectroscopic binary 31 Crateris is now suspect in the anomalous readings. Still, the Mariner 10 observation made researchers realize the observations in the extreme UV were possible over interstellar distances.

The planet Mercury as seen by NASA's Messenger spacecraft (Credit: NASA/JPL).
The planet Mercury as seen by NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft (Credit: NASA/JHUAPL).

Today, NASA has a permanent emissary orbiting Mercury with its MESSENGER spacecraft. MESSENGER first entered orbit around Mercury on March 18th, 2011 after a series of trajectory changing flybys. MESSENGER has filled in the map of the remainder of Mercury’s surface, with no signs of the anomalous “moon.” Interestingly, MESSENGER was also on the lookout for “Vulcanoids” (tiny asteroids interior to Mercury’s orbit; sorry, Mr. Spock) while enroute to its final orbital insertion. NASA even released an April Fool’s Day prank of a fake “discovery” of a Mercurial moon dubbed Caduceus in 2012.

But MESSENGER has made some fascinating true to life discoveries, such as sampling Mercury’s tenuous exosphere & the possibility of ice at its permanently shadowed poles. Lots of new features have been mapped and named on Mercury, following the convention of naming features after famous deceased artists, musicians and authors set forth by the International Astronomical Union. It’s amazing to think that we had no detailed views at the entire surface of Mercury until the 1970’s, although some ground-based professional observatories and even skilled amateurs are now doing just that.

Fast forward to this weekend. Mercury is just beginning its first apparition of six in 2013 this week and is currently visible low in the dusk sky after sunset to the west. Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation on February 16th at 18.1° from the Sun. Interestingly, that’s very close to the shortest elongation that can occur. Mercury’s orbit is eccentric enough that greatest elongation as seen from the Earth can vary from 17.9° to 27.8°. This month’s elongation happens within only 5 hours of Mercury reaching perihelion at 46 million kilometers from the Sun. This means that Mercury won’t peak above the dusk horizon for mid-northern latitude observers quite as high as it will during the next evening apparition of the planet in June.

Mercury Mars
caption =”Looking west 30 minutes after sunset on Feb. 8th from latitude 30° north.

 

This appearance of Mercury does, however, have some things going for it. First off, the ecliptic sits at a favorable viewing angle, roughly perpendicular to the western horizon at dusk for mid- to high northern latitude observers. This gives Mercury a bit of a “boost” out of the weeds. Secondly, Mercury is a full magnitude (2.512 times) brighter when it reaches maximum elongation near perihelion than aphelion, such as its next appearance in the dawn sky on March 31st of this year. Mercury will reach magnitude -0.5, versus +0.5 in late March.

To see Mercury, find a site with a western horizon free of ground clutter and start sweeping the horizon with binoculars about 15 minutes after local sunset. See a reddish dot just above Mercury? That’s the planet Mars, shining about 7 times fainter than -1.0 magnitude Mercury at magnitude +1.2. Mercury is fast approaching a conjunction with Mars; the two will be only 15’ apart (half the average width of a Full Moon) on the evening of February 8th at 17:00 Universal Time!

If you ever wondered how Mercury would appear with a moon, now is a good time to take a look! Again, binoculars are the best optical tool for the job. Can you see both with the naked eye? Can you place both in the same low power field of view with a telescope? You’ll only have a 15-30 minute window (depending on latitude) to snare the pairing before they follow the setting Sun below the horizon. Photographing the pair will be tricky, though not impossible, as they present a very low contrast against the bright background twilight sky.

Cass_Obs_13_Feb_5_6
caption =”Mercury (lower center) & Mars (upper center) imaged by Mike Weasner on February 5th.

 

Don’t expect to see detail on Mercury or Mars telescopically; Mercury only appears 5.8” across on the 8th, while Mars is 4” in apparent size. Mars disappears from view later this month to reach solar conjunction on April 18th 2013. The waxing crescent Moon just 1 day after New joins the pair on the evenings of February 10th and 11th.

Now for the “Wow” factor of what you’re seeing. The conjunction of Mars and Mercury only appears close; in reality, they are over 180 million kilometers apart. Mercury is 1.15 Astronomical Units (A.U.s)/178 million kilometers from us on February 8th, while Mars is nearly at its farthest from us at 2.31 A.U.s/358 million kilometers distant. It’s splendid to think that with Curiosity and friends operating on Mars and Messenger orbiting Mercury, we now have permanent robotic “eyes” on and around both!

Credits: Simulation created by the author using Starry Night.

Mercury & Mars courtesy of Mike Weasner and the Cassiopeia Observatory. Used with permission.