Finding Mercury

Hey, everyone. Remember a couple of months ago, when all six of the naked-eye planets (including the one you were probably standing on at the time) were visible in the early winter mornings? Well, things have been moving around quite a bit since then. We’ve been talking a bunch about Jupiter’s whereabouts (high in the southern skies around mid-evening). As it turns out, now is a great time to check out Mercury, too. It moves fast, much faster than any of the other planets — it finishes one orbit around the Sun in just 88 Earth days. So, now, it’s made its way to the evening skies where you can catch it a little while after sunset.

Have a look at this shot from Stellarium below, which shows the western skies near my place at around 8:30 tonight. You can see the Pleiades star cluster, that tiny dipper-looking thing, in the middle. If you can find your way to it in the deepening dark, you’ll see Mercury glowing faintly a little way down and to the right. Mercury is hard to see because it’s small and so close to the Sun, so it’s very often lost in the Sun’s glare. I try, but I’m not very good at finding it. You’ll have to look around a bit, but you can find it. Once you do, you won’t be able to unsee it. Then, keep an eye out for it in the evenings over the next couple of weeks. You’ll see it move around a bit before it eventually falls back and gets washed out by the Sun again by the beginning of May.

By the by, you’ll see the bright star Aldebaran is also in the neighborhood. That’s the brightest star in the constellation Taurus, you can use it to find your way to that V-shaped group of stars, the Hyades cluster, which is the closest star cluster to us. Aldebaran is between us and it, so it’s not part of the cluster, but it makes for a gorgeous sight nonetheless. Clear skies, and happy planet hunting, everyone!

Mercury in the western skies at around 8:30pm EDT

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