Viewing Mercury

Most people have never seen the planet Mercury, but it has been known since ancient times. Being close to the sun, it is never found high in the night sky; rather it is viewable only shortly after sunset or before sunrise. This week, Mercury will be visible in the western sky after sunset.

Mercury is a challenge to spot, but you will be able to use Venus as a guide. You will need an unobstructed view of the horizon: no trees, hills, or buildings. Find Venus; shortly after the sun sets Venus will be the brightest object in the western sky. Go about 1/3 of the way down to the horizon and somewhat to the right. If conditions are right, you will be able to see a faint point of light about 11 degrees above the horizon; this is Mercury. You will be looking against a fairly light sky, which is what makes it so difficult to spot Mercury, but if you wait until it is darker, it will be too low in the sky.

Mercury will be at its highest on the 7th of February, and then will quickly become more difficult to see as it moves in its 88-day orbit around the sun.

Here’s a view from some astronomy software (Starry Night) at about 15 minutes after sunset, showing what to expect tonight:

Grace and Peace

[Update — Friday 2/2 — I took my children out last night to Parcul Tineretului, the large park next to our apartment block in Bucharest, and about 25 minutes after sunset we could all see Mercury. About half of my middle school students at Bucharest Christian Academy said they did the same last night.]

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