CELESTIAL OBJECTS COME AND GO FROM OUR VIEW IN THE NIGHT SKY, as they fling by or orbit around the Sun. Whether it be the Full Moon, a meteor shower, or just the best night to see Mars, we're here to direct your eyes skyward and tell you to look up and appreciate the wonders of space from Earth.
This week, we're asking you to marvel at the beauty of the planet Mercury as it reaches its greatest elongation on Tuesday, November 10. At this point, the usually elusive planet will be bright enough it won't be outshined by the light of the Sun.
Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, so it is pretty difficult to spot with the naked eye. The light of the star essentially outshines Mercury, obscuring our view of the elusive planet. But thanks to Mercury's orbital path, every three to four months we can catch a fleeting glimpse as the planet reaches its furthest distance from the Sun.
Mercury swings from the east to the west of the Sun three times a year, and the greatest elongation of the planet takes place 22 days before and after Mercury and Earth are on the same side of the Sun. It is at this point that it is furthest from the Sun.
At that point, Mercury is at peak visibility.
Mercury has been at elongation from the Sun before in 2020 — Mercury was at its absolute maximum elongation from the Sun on March 24, and could be seen 27.8 degrees west of the Sun. On that occasion, the planet was visible in the morning sky, before sunrise.
On Tuesday, the planet will be 19.1 degrees west of the Sun. Mercury will rise and set a short time before the Sun, meaning it will be visible shortly before sunrise.
This month's elongation is extra special, as the planet's orbit will appear to be 'edge on' from our view on Earth. This only takes place twice a year — in early May and November — making the planet appear as though it is crossing the disk of the Sun.
This only takes place when the Earth and Mercury are at a specific point in their orbital path.
Mercury can be seen with the naked eye, but a pair of binoculars may be handy if you want to catch the planet's glimmer in the twilight.
If you live in a crowded city like New York, it is best to get as high up as possible in order to minimize light pollution therefore going on a balcony or rooftop is highly recommended.
You also want to block out any light coming from screens of electronic devices, or flashlights and allow your eyes to get accustomed to the darkness for around 30 minutes before you look up.