Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Catch Mercury at Sunset

Catch Mercury at Sunset
by Dave Adalian

Of the nine planets in our Solar System, only five are easily visible to the naked eye. This month, those with keen vision may see them all in a single evening.

The hardest to locate of the five wanderers--the Greek root of “planet” means “one who wanders” as the planets do when they slide among the stars from night to night--is swift-footed Mercury, messenger of the Gods.

Mercury is difficult because it rides so close in the sky to the Sun. During the last half of March, however, it will follow far enough behind the sunset to let those who try catch a fleeting glimpse.

The lucky can see Mercury anytime during the last 10 days of March or first few days of April, riding low in the gloaming of the western sky around 6:30 p.m. The job is made easier the evening of Monday, March 22, when a brand new crescent Moon sits above Mercury and to its left. It may even offer a little color to the eye.

Much easier to find--almost impossible to miss--is bright Venus. As I described last month, Venus is still scintillating in the high western sky just after sundown, outshining all other heavenly bodies but Moon and Sun.

The still young crescent Moon will slide past Venus the evening of March 24 in a breathtaking close pairing. Even the cheapest of binoculars will make the sight spectacular.

Just above Venus are the Seven Sisters, a familiar cluster of bright stars known as the Pleiades. Beside them is a single dim point of red light, all that remains of the brilliant Mars of last summer. Mars is now so far diminished its details are lost even in the telescope.

Saturn, on the other hand, it still at its best for viewing with or without optical aid. It sits almost at the top of the sky when darkness settles in, resting between the stars of Orion and the bright twins of Gemini, Castor and Pollux. In a telescope, its vaguely yellow color becomes a beautiful tawny golden, its rings open wide and its moons surround it.

Also astonishing when seen in the telescope is Jupiter, king of the planets. Magnified, Jupiter becomes a striped disk of swirling colors surrounded by its bright moons and sometimes highlighted by the Great Red Spot. It can be found rising in the east with the constellation Leo.

Clear skies!


This column originally appeared in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta on March 9, 2004.

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