When I walked out my door early this morning and saw the clear skies, I thought – this is the day! This is the day that I will be able to see Mercury! As you may have heard, all five visible planets are lined up in the morning sky from mid-January to mid-February. Due to their individually unique orbits around the Sun, each of these planets can be seen either in the morning (predawn) or evening skies, depending on where they are in their orbit. Most of the time, a few are out in the morning and a few are out in the evening. Now, for the first time in 10 years, all five are lined up in the morning for all of us early risers to see. I like to think of it as a special treat for those people whose daily lives require them to be up and moving around before the Sun begins to lighten the skies.
The five visible planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn; you can never see Uranus or Neptune with your naked eye … or Pluto for that matter, although Pluto has of course been demoted from its planetary status.
When you hear that certain planets are visible in the sky (whether morning or evening), the place to look for them is in the southern sky, along an imaginary line called the ecliptic. The ecliptic is the path that the sun follows each day as it arcs across the southern sky from east to west. The planets always follow this same path, which is very convenient for us. It would be even more convenient if the ecliptic was marked in the sky with a dotted line, but unfortunately you do have to practice “seeing” this line on your own. Facing due south, the ecliptic is about halfway between the horizon and the sky directly above you. Raise your hand above your head, and then lower it half way down to the horizon, and that is about where the ecliptic will be. Again, try to picture where the sun crosses through the sky, and that is the area to look for.
Some of the visible planets are much brighter than the others – notably, Venus and Jupiter. As you can see by the attached picture, Venus is currently low in the southeastern sky. Look for the brightest star you can see, and that is Venus. (The only objects in the sky that are brighter than Venus are the sun and the moon). As I drive south from Colchester to Mystic, Route 11 and Route 85 both head south/southeast, which means I have a nice view of Venus directly in front of me for most of my trip.
Once you find Venus, follow the ecliptic up and to the right (west) for about three finger widths, and Saturn is the next planet along the ecliptic. It’s significantly lower in brightness than Venus, but still outshines the neighboring star Antares. Another four finger widths up the ecliptic from Saturn, and you will see Mars. Mars should be in the middle of the southern sky, and has a reddish-orange color to it that makes it easy to distinguish from Spica, a bright star found just to the right (west) of Mars. A larger gap follows Mars, and then Jupiter is found along the part of the ecliptic that has just barely started to drop down towards the western skyline. Jupiter is another very bright planet, just a little dimmer than Venus.
I have been seeing Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter all week, but Mercury has proven to be much more difficult to spot. Remember the solar system model that you studied in elementary school? Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, and compared to the rest of the planets in our solar system, it is really close. Wherever the Sun is in the sky, Mercury is close by, and is typically being outshone by the Sun. What does that mean for us stargazers down here on Earth? It means that the only time we can see Mercury is JUST after sunset (in the west), or JUST before sunrise (in the east). Not only do you have to catch it in one of these very narrow windows, but you have to have very clear skies (because it’s not a very bright planet), and you have to have a very good view of the horizon (too many trees and it’ll be too low on the horizon to see it). I have been star gazing for more than 12 years and I have only seen Mercury three times, just to give you an idea of how elusive this little planet can be.
I thought I may see it last week, but wasn’t able to find it. When I drive through Waterford on Route 85, there is a great view of the southeastern horizon, but by then it’s 6:30 a.m. and the sun is close enough to rising that the skies are too light in the east. I thought Monday was going to be the day, but although the skies were mostly clear, there were a few stubborn clouds that were covering up right where I knew the little bugger was hiding. Yesterday was so cloudy that Venus and Jupiter were the only two planets that were shining (dimly) through the haze. But today … today was looking good, with no clouds to be seen.
As I drove down Route 11, I spotted Venus first. I looked two finger widths to the left (east) and down a finger width towards the horizon, and there it was! Mercury, in all it’s dim, transient glory. It was 6:06 a.m., and my day was off to a great start.