Luna partners with Mercury Friday and Saturday

Jan 26

Written by:
1/26/2014 11:20 PM  RssIcon

Slim crescent Moon near Mercury

On Friday Jan 31 of this week (see above graphic), a very slim crescent from a just-past-New-Moon will pair up with Mercury in the evening sky. Ideal times to look are about 45 minutes to an hour after sunset.  The planet is surprisingly bright, though you will need to look in what I call the "middle twilight" area of the sky. That's the area of twilight between the darker sky above it, and the brighter sky below from the already-set Sun. In that transition zone, the bright point of Mercury pops out - if you have access to a relatively flat and clear western horizon.

These types of situations are when binoculars can be your friend to see the Moon. The planet - despite having the smaller angular diameter / size in the sky, may appear brighter. Point-like objects at lower magnitude can seem brighter than objects like the Moon that are technically 20x to 40x brighter, but are spread out over a larger area, thereby reducing their apparent contrast to our eyes in a still-not-dark sky. So use binoculars like 7x35's, 8x40's or 7x50's to first pick off Mercury if it is difficult to spot, then pan just slightly to the right (Northern Hemisphere) and perhaps a bit down. Note that this graphic is for the Chicago IL area; the Moon will appear higher the further west you are / lower for these further east.

The next night on Feb 1, the Moon should be easier to see, as the crescent will have fattened up a bit, and it will be higher in the sky as well. Mercury may even be spied earlier this way; now look for the Moon first, then with binoculars, drop a field or two towards the horizon to pick off the planet in the still waning twilight glow (see graphic below).

Many amateur astronomers have never seen Mercury, because it moves so quickly and is sometimes poorly positioned to see due to the ecliptic's angle. This is one of the best opportunities to spy our solar system's innermost planet for all of 2014, so take advantage of the opportunity now if you get clear enough skies to do so!

Also, don't miss the supernova in Messier 82 in the evening sky. For more astronomy happenings this week, and some cool objects to check out with binoculars or a small telescope, see Eyes on the week of Jan 27 thru Feb 2 in the blog. And for new telescope users, there's the "Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Telescopes and Amateur Astronomy" so you can leap from beginner to intermediate in about an hour!

Slim crescent Moon near Mercury

Here's a short video I made a couple years ago showing the typical greatest elongation of Mercury in the sky. There was a cloud deck above the planet's location, but it helps give an idea of where to look for it.

Tags: Mercury , Moon , binoculars
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The Nightlight

This blog includes what to see in the night and daytime skies, thoughts on telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy observing accessories and equipment, plus my own occasional notes on objects I've seen and observed. Oh, and the random theater or other "my take on life" post. In other words, there is always something interesting. Check it out.