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Mercury Makes an Appearance

The next two weeks will afford local skygazers an opportunity to see one of Earth's more elusive neighbors.

 

The planet Mercury, which orbits closest to the Sun, and, is thus usually obscured from our view by our star's light, is entering a portion of its orbit that will make it visible low in our western sky during the evenings.

Mercury is essentially a ball of iron covered in a fairly thin crust of silicate rock. Look for it near the western horizon between 20 and 50 minutes after sunset, starting Wednesday. It will be one of the brighter objects in the sky, exceeded only by the moon and the planets Venus and Jupiter.

Mercury will perhaps be easiest to see during the week of Feb. 26. As March progresses, Mercury will continue along in its 88-day trek around the sun and the planet's brightness will fade (even though it will be getting closer to us). By March 10, identifying it in the sunset's afterglow will be tricky for even experienced sky hobbyists, and by March 15 it will have nearly vanished.

Other planets

If you miss out on Mercury, there are some fine planetary "consolation prizes" in the sky right now. Venus and Jupiter, as mentioned, have both been brilliant in the evening sky since mid-December. As Mercury fades out of sight, these brighter neighbors will head towards a celestial rendezvous known as a conjunction. As viewed from Earth, they will move closer to each other each day, with the closest approach on March 12. Assuming clear skies, just look in the western sky after dinner. You can't miss them; mark your calendar.

And then there’s Mars. The red planet is rising at about 7 p.m. and, save for the moon from March 5-10, is easily the brightest object in the eastern sky by around 9 p.m. each night.

Take some time to enjoy the sky. After all these eons, it's still one of the best free shows going.

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