April 2016 is the year’s best time to see planet Mercury as an evening star. It’s strangely satisfying, and there’s no rush.
How to See Mercury After Sunset
You do need an unobstructed horizon to see Mercury, our solar system’s innermost planet. Look up your local sunset time, add 40 minutes, and then look in the direction of the sunset. (See YOUR local sunset times here.)
The time is important. Twilight deepens as dusk progresses, which makes finding Mercury easier, and yet it’s sinking lower all the while. You want the right balance. 40 minutes after sunset is perfect.
Occupying the faint constellation Aries all this month, it’s the ONLY star low down in the direction of sunset.
If have binoculars, use them.
Mercury and the Moon on April 8, 2016
We’ll get a one-night special on Friday evening April 8, when Mercury hovers to the right of the thin crescent Moon at dusk. Did we say you need a clear view, almost all the way down to the horizon?
Once again, look towards the direction of the sunset, and watch for the young waxing crescent Moon as well as planet Mercury to appear over the horizon about 45 to 60 minutes after the Sun goes down.
Besides finding Mercury, you should also be able to see Earthshine on the “dark” side of the Moon!
After Friday, Mercury gets higher but loses brilliance. Nonetheless, around Tax Day, April 15, it’s still magnitude zero, and now ten degrees up. That’s a good time to look too.
Photo Credit: P.M. Hedén
Facts about Planet Mercury
The innermost planet is odd in so many ways, it’s hard to find aspects that aren’t strange.
Mercury has the most lopsided, out-of-round orbit of any planet. Thanks to tugs from Jupiter, of all unlikely villains, the Mercury orbit wildly changes shape. In the future its orbit may stretch all the way out and let it collide with Venus, destroying both worlds in the next five billion years.
Mercury alters its brightness more than any other planet, varying a thousandfold. And while Venus looks brightest when it’s near to us, Mercury shines most brightly when it’s farthest from us—like right now.
As Mercury spins, it has no axial tilt. At its polar depressions, the sun is always below the horizon, so these regions are packed with ice. They offer winter sports on a world badly needing it.
And even that isn’t the end of Mercurian strangeness. It has a region called The Weird Terrain. I’m not making that up. It’s located at the precise opposite point on Mercury from its most famous impact crater, the enormous Caloris Basin. Apparently, debris or else shock waves from that impacting meteor traveled around the planet and collided in mid-air at the antipodal point—to wreak havoc there.
Go out the first clear night and look very low in the west. See that strange orange planet for yourself.