2, 2000 -- There will be two good times to see the elusive
planet Mercury this year, and next week is one of them.
Mercury is the solar system's innermost planet, so it never strays very far in the sky from the blinding glare of the Sun. Its angular separation from the Sun (or elongation) is always less than 28 degrees. Mercury approaches its maximum eastern elongation on June 9, 2000. It will be 24 degrees from the Sun, appearing as a bright zero-magnitude object above the western horizon after sunset.
Above: Artist Duane Hilton's rendition of the close encounter between the Moon and Mercury after sunset on Saturday, June 3, 2000. The setting is Yosemite National Park in north-central California. The Moon and Mercury will appear close together in the sky, but they are really very far apart. On June 3, Mercury will be 139 million km from Earth while the Moon is only 359 thousand km away.
While you're enjoying the rare appearance of Mercury in plain view, don't miss another notable sight: cradled in the arms of the slim crescent Moon will appear the ghostly outline of the full Moon, a dim glow that astronomers call "Earthshine."
"The phase of the Earth as seen from the Moon is nearly full when the Moon is crescent," says Dr. George Lebo, a Marshall Space Flight Center 2000 Summer Faculty Fellow. "Because the Earth is four times bigger than the Moon and is a ten times better reflector, the 'Full Earth' is 160 times brighter than the 'Full Moon.' That's why earthshine is so noticeable."
Left: The western sky on June 9, 2000, just after sunset at mid-Northern latitudes. Mercury appears in the constellation Gemini about 14 degrees above the WNW horizon to mid-latitude observers in both hemispheres.
Now that you've spotted Mercury using the Moon as a finder on June 3, you can watch Mercury's progress in the sky throughout the month. In early June, Mercury will remain at about the same height above the horizon each night if you look at the same time. After the 10th, the planet will head back toward the Sun. By the third week of June, Mercury will be almost impossible to find as it becomes lost in the Sun's glare.
After June, the best time this year to spot Mercury from northern latitudes will be in mid-November when the planet is 14 degrees over the horizon before sunrise.
|dates of maximum elongation for Mercury||elongation||morning or evening star||altitude at sunrise/sunset |
(as seen from mid-Northern latitudes)
Feb. 14, 2000
Mar. 28, 2000
June 9, 2000
July 27, 2000
Oct. 6, 2000
Nov. 15, 2000
If it's any consolation to the often-frustrated Earthbound
observers of Mercury, NASA spacecraft have a hard time, too.
For instance, ground controllers can't point the Hubble Space
Telescope toward Mercury because small pointing errors might
allow intense sunlight to damage sensitive cameras. The only
spacecraft to explore Mercury close-up was Mariner 10, which
executed 3 flybys of Mercury in 1974 and 1975, surveying just
45 percent of its surface.
Last week, astronomers from Boston University announced that they had captured unprecedented ground-based pictures of Mercury covering parts of the planet's surface that Mariner 10 missed. The images, taken at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in California, revealed surface markings similar to the bright craters and dark maria ("seas") found on the Moon. [Boston University Press Release]
Right: This image of a portion of Mercury's surface not photographed by Mariner 10 in 1974-75 was obtained by Boston University astronomers using observations made at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in August 1998. Hundreds of thousands of pictures taken with short time exposures (1/60th) were examined to find the 30 images with the clearest surface markings, taken during instances of "perfect seeing" through the Earth's atmosphere.
The Boston team plans to make more observations this fall. They might even succeed in detecting sodium in Mercury's wispy atmosphere, which consists of atoms blasted off its surface by the solar wind. Because the planet is so hot, these atoms quickly escape into space. In contrast to the stable atmospheres of Earth and Venus, Mercury's atmosphere is constantly being replenished.
Mercury's dynamic atmosphere is just one of the planet's many exotic aspects. Mercury's density is the higher than any planet except the Earth -- its iron core is probably bigger than Earth's entire Moon! It is the only terrestrial planet besides Earth to possess a global magnetic field. Temperatures on the surface of Mercury vary from nearly the highest in the solar system at the equator to among the coldest in permanently shadowed areas at the poles. Radar data suggest that fiery Mercury, like the Moon, actually harbors polar deposits of ice.
In 2004, scientists hope to launch a satellite called MESSENGER (MErcury: Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) to study Mercury in greater detail. The spacecraft is slated to enter orbit around Mercury in 2009 carrying instruments to answer the following questions:
- What is the origin of Mercury's high density?
- What are the composition and structure of its crust?
- What is Mercury's tectonic history, and is its surface shaped by volcanism?
- What is the nature and origin of Mercury's magnetic field?
- What are the characteristics of the thin atmosphere and miniature magnetosphere?
- What is the nature of the mysterious polar caps?
If all goes as planned, MESSENGER will get the closest, clearest view ever of the solar system's innermost planet.
Above: This mosaic of Mariner 10 images shows that Mercury's surface looks similar to our Moon's. Each is heavily cratered and made of rock. Mercury's diameter is about 4800 km, while the Moon's is slightly less at about 3500 km (compared with about 12,700 km for the Earth). Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, orbiting at about 1/3 the radius of the Earth's orbit. As Mercury slowly rotates, its surface temperature varies from an unbearably cold -180 degrees Celsius to an unbearably hot 400 degrees Celsius. [more information]
The MESSENGER mission is managed for NASA by the Johns
Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, MD.
The Principal Investigator is Dr. Sean C. Solomon of the Carnegie
Institution of Washington. For more complete information on the
mission, including animations of the trajectory to Mercury with
flybys of Earth, Venus, and Mercury, visit the MESSENGER
Editor's note: the opening line of this story was inspired by a recent episode of Jack Horkheimer's PBS program "Stargazer."
Are Only Two Really Good Times This Year To See Mercury and Next
Week Is One Of Them" - Jack Stargazer, Episode #00-21
Mercury Mission Selected for NASA Discovery Program -July 1999 press release
MESSENGER Home Page -- at Johns Hopkins University
Facts about Mercury -- from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Mercury Unveiled -- an informative essay by G. Jeffrey Taylor, Hawai'i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, University of Hawaii
NEW GROUND-BASED PHOTOS OF MERCURY'S
UNSEEN SURFACE OBTAINED BY BU ASTRONOMERS -- Boston University Press Release
Mariner Mercury -- GSFC Astronomy Picture of the Day
Mercury: A Cratered Inferno -- GSFC Astronomy Picture of the Day