On May 09, 2016, amateur astronomers with small telescopes and solar filters will be able to observe Mercury’s tiny silhouette moving slowly across the face of the Sun. Astronomers call this event a “transit”.Read More
Sometimes a whole bunch of different sky events happen over a very short period, giving skywatchers a chance to witness many unusual events in a few days. The next week or two is a case in point.
Uranus at opposition
First, the planet Uranus is just past opposition, so it is visible all night long. It’s also in a location where you can spot its dim glow rather easily. You will need a binocular to bring out the faint planet from its surrounding stars
Look at the chart above, and you will see how to spot Uranus using an easy bit of star hopping.
Start with visualizing an equilateral triangle with one side marked by Hamal in Aries and Algenib, the lower left star of the square of Pegasus. The third point of the triangle is Alrescha, Alpha Piscium.
Although only fourth magnitude, Alrescha is the second brightest star in the dim constellation of Pisces. It marks the knot which joins the two chains of stars attached to the two fish of Pisces. Follow the lower chain of stars to the right under the square of Pegasus to find Uranus.
The stars that make up this chain do not have names, only Greek letters. Starting at Alrescha, they are Nu, Mu, Zeta, and Epsilon. You don’t need to know their names, just look for Uranus between the last two, a bit to the south of the line joining them.
In binoculars, Uranus will look like a blue green 6th magnitude star. In a powerful telescope, it will show as a tiny blue-green disk 3.7 arc seconds in diameter.
Planetary diameters are usually measured in arc seconds: the number of seconds they subtend at the observer’s eye. There are 360 degrees in a circle, 60 minutes in a degree, and 60 seconds in a minute. To give you some idea how tiny the planets appear, the sun and moon are both around 30 arc minutes in diameter, or 1800 arc seconds. The largest any planet can appear to Earthbound astronomers is Venus at its closest, which is about 1 arc minute or 60 arc seconds in diameter. Thus all the planets are typically smaller in a telescope than the largest craters on the moon.
Mercury at greatest elongation
On Thursday, October 15, Mercury will be at the farthest it strays west of the sun. Because it is only 18 degrees away from the sun, it can best be seen about half an hour before sunrise. Again it is easiest to spot in binoculars. It is about twice the angular diameter of Uranus, so will look like a tiny half moon 8 arc seconds across in a large telescope.
Mars near Jupiter
On Sunday morning, October 18, Mars will be in conjunction with Jupiter, and the two planets will be close enough together that both will fit in the same field of a small telescope. Look for Mars just above Jupiter.
Both will be on the far side of the Sun, so much smaller than they usually appear when in the evening sky. Jupiter measures 32 arc seconds while Mars is only 4.1 arc seconds, half the size of Mercury. By the time they reach opposition in spring of 2016, they will swell to 44 and 18.3 arc seconds respectively.
Double shadow transits on Jupiter
Speaking of Jupiter, there will be two interesting passages of the shadows of its moons across its face in the next two weeks. These require at least a 5-inch telescope and steady observing conditions.
Again on Sunday morning, October 18, the shadow of the moon Io will chase the shadow of Ganymede across Jupiter’s face. Both shadows will be on Jupiter from 6:42 to 8:08 a.m. EDT, but will be increasingly hard to see after sunrise at around 7:30 a.m. local time. Observers in western parts of North America will have a better view because the transits will occur between 3:42 and 5:08 a.m. PDT, long before sunrise, though Jupiter will be lower in the sky.
Exactly a week later. on Sunday October 25, there will be another double shadow transit. This one is especially interesting because both shadows enter the disk at almost the same time, 8:36 a.m. EDT or 5:36 a.m. PDT, but then cross at very different speeds, Io’s shadow taking 2 hours and 17 minutes to cross while Ganymede’s takes 3 and a half hours, because of its greater distance from Jupiter and larger orbit diameter.
This transit occurs in full daylight in eastern North America, so probably won’t be visible, but is at a much more favorable time for western observers.
All in all, planetary observers will have a busy week ahead and, as always, we welcome your images of these events.
Mercury reaches its greatest elongation east of the sun this week on Friday, September 4.
Here we see it as we might from space, say on the International Space Station or the Hubble Space Telescope. The green line marks the ecliptic, the path the sun appears to follow over the year. Most of the planets also appear to revolve in this same plane.
The red line is Mercury’s orbit, which you can see is tilted quite a bit compared to the ecliptic. Of all the planets, Mercury’s 7 degree tilt is the most extreme. The small orange dot marks Mercury’s position on Friday, as far east of the sun as it can go.
How will Mercury look to us here on the surface of the Earth? It very much depends on where you are located.
This view of Mercury is how it will appear to me from my location close to Toronto, Canada at sunset. Everyone at a similar latitude across southern Canada, the northern United States, and most of Europe and Asia will see something very similar.
Because of the Earth’s current position in its orbit around the sun, the ecliptic makes a very shallow angle with the western horizon as seen from the northern hemisphere. So even though Mercury is as far west of the sun as it can get, at this time of year it ends up very close to the horizon around sunset, the best time to look for it. To make matters worse, because of its orbit’s tilt, Mercury is quite far south of the ecliptic at this time. As a result Mercury is barely 7 degrees above the horizon at sunset.
The situation in the southern hemisphere, here seen from southern Australia, is very different. The ecliptic makes a very steep angle with the horizon, and Mercury is south of the ecliptic, so Mercury is much higher above the horizon at sunset, 26 degrees in fact.
As a result, spotting Mercury from the northern hemisphere will be a major challenge this week, but the lucky people in the southern hemisphere will have a fine view.
This situation reverses in the spring, when northerners get a fine view of Mercury at dusk, and southerners are out of luck. It also reverses when Mercury is at elongation on the western side of the sun. That is why every year we publish a table showing which elongations of Mercury will be favorable or unfavorable, depending on which hemisphere you view it from.
All in all, even though it is very bright, Mercury is probably the most challenging planet to view. You have to be in the right place at the right time.
Mercury viewed through a telescope is a disappointment. The most you will see is a tiny disk, which goes through phases similar to Venus and the moon. But it is a great satisfaction to most stargazers to say that they have actually seen it at all.
Over the next few nights, observers with low western horizons may be able to observe a triple conjunction between the planets Mercury and Jupiter and the bright star Regulus.
On Friday, August 7, the two planets and star will form an equilateral triangle, 1 degree on a side. Mercury will be on top, Regulus to the left, and Jupiter to the right.
Look for them with binoculars just after sunset. Jupiter will be in the middle and the brightest of the three, at magnitude –1.7. Mercury will be on the right at magnitude –0.7. Regulus will be the faintest of the three, on the left at magnitude +1.3.
Brightness in astronomy is measured on an upside-down scale where the faintest stars visible to the naked eye are magnitude 6, the brightest stars are around magnitude 0, and really bright objects like the sun, moon, and planets have negative magnitudes.
All three of these objects will be very bright, but will be masked by the brightness of the sky just after sunset. If you wait until the sky has darkened, they will probably be too low to observe.
Three nights later, on Monday, August 10, Mercury will have moved away to the left, but Regulus and Jupiter will have moved closer to each other, less than half a degree apart. This conjunction will be very hard to observe because of its low altitude.
This will probably be your last chance to observe Jupiter before it passes behind the Sun on August 26. Look for it in the morning sky in mid-September.
Mercury is always a difficult object to spot, always clinging closely to the sun’s apron strings. But you might be excused for missing its brief appearance this week in the dawn skies.
After many attempts to observe Mercury, I’ve found that the best time to spot it is about half an hour before sunrise in the morning sky, or half an hour after sunset in the evening sky. It’s always a balancing act between Mercury’s low altitude and the brightness of the background sky. I find 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars helpful in spotting Mercury, though once I’ve located Mercury in binoculars I usually have no trouble seeing it naked eye.
Because of the tilt of the ecliptic, the path the Sun and planets follow across the sky, some apparitions of Mercury are more favorable than others. Usually apparitions which are favorable for observers in the northern hemisphere are unfavorable for observers in the southern hemisphere, and vice versa.
The tilt of the ecliptic would indicate that this apparition favors southern observers, but as you can see from these two views, it really isn’t much different: catching Mercury this week will be a challenge for observers everywhere in the world.
A secondary factor affecting Mercury’s visibility is the tilt and eccentricity of its orbit. At 7 degrees, Mercury’s tilt is greater than any other planet. The eccentricity of its orbit, which measures how far it deviates from a circle, is also the greatest, more than twice as eccentric as Mars’ orbit.
The tilt this week also favors southern observers, as you can see in the charts, where Mercury’s orbit is marked in red and the ecliptic in green, but even this doesn’t help much.
If you are successful in spotting Mercury in the next few days, congratulate yourself, and let us know here!
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.
If you'd like to follow along with NASA's New Horizons Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, please download our FREE Pluto Safari app. It is available for iOS and Android mobile devices. Simulate the July 14, 2015 flyby of Pluto, get regular mission news updates, and learn the history of Pluto.
Simulation Curriculum is the leader in space science curriculum solutions and the makers of Starry Night, SkySafari and Pluto Safari. Follow the mission to Pluto with us on Twitter @SkySafariAstro, Facebook and Instagram.