Now that Pluto has been demoted to a dwarf planet, Mercury is the smallest of the eight planets. With a diameter of 3032 miles (4879 km.), it is slightly more than a third of the diameter of Earth, and smaller than the solar system’s two largest moons, Ganymede and Titan. Because of its tight orbit around the sun, Mercury never strays far into the night sky, peeping tantalizingly over the horizon a few times a year. The next two weeks will be your best chance for seeing Mercury in evening twilight this year.
Timing is the secret for catching sight of Mercury. Try too early, and its tiny speck of light will be lost against the twilight sky. Try too late, and Mercury will be too close to the horizon. I’ve found the best time to be about half an hour after sunset. Binoculars are helpful in initially spotting Mercury, but once located in binoculars you should be able to see it with the unaided eye.
Currently Venus is shining brightly in the evening sky, and it can be a helpful guide to spotting Mercury, about two-thirds of the way down towards the horizon, and slightly to your right. Don’t confuse it with nearby Aldebaran, which will have a noticeably reddish color and will probably twinkle, while Mercury shines with a more steady light.
In a telescope, Mercury is a disappointing sight. Like Venus, Mercury exhibits phases as it passes between us and the sun. At present it is slightly gibbous. On Saturday, May 2, it will look just like a miniature first quarter moon. After that, it will assume a crescent shape.
Because Mercury is always seen close to the horizon, it is a challenge to see its surface markings, even in a powerful telescope. Serious observers of Mercury prefer to observe it in the daytime sky, now relatively easy to do because of computerized telescopes. But always be very careful when observing with the sun above the horizon, because even the briefest view of the sun in a telescope will do permanent harm to your eyes.
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