Wednesday, March 01, 2006

See the Incredible Shrinking Planet

It's not every day you get to see a shrinking planet. Today could be the day.
Step outside this evening at sunset and look west toward the glow of the setting sun. As the sky fades to black, a bright planet will emerge. It's Mercury, first planet from the sun, also known as the "Incredible Shrinking Planet."
"This is only the second time in my life I've seen Mercury," says sky watcher Jeffrey Beall who snapped this picture looking west from his balcony in Denver, Colorado:

Mercury is the bright "star" just above the mountain ridge, rivaling the city lights.
Mercury is elusive because it spends most of its time hidden by the glare of the sun. This week is different. From now until about March 1st, Mercury moves out of the glare and into plain view. It's not that Mercury is genuinely farther from the sun. It just looks that way because of the Earth-sun-Mercury geometry in late February.

Friday, Feb. 24th, is the best day to look; that's the date of greatest elongation or separation from the sun. Other dates of note are Feb 28th and March 1st when the crescent moon glides by Mercury—very pretty.

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