Moon and Mercury

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Moon and Mercury

Over the centuries, no planet has been as frustrating to study as Mercury. The Sun’s closest planet never moves far from the Sun in our sky. So when astronomers pointed telescopes at Mercury, it was almost always screened by twilight and a thick layer of Earth’s atmosphere. So most of what we know about Mercury has come from spacecraft that visited the planet.

You can see the difficulty yourself the next few days. Mercury is quite low in the east not long before sunrise. It’s almost at its farthest point from the Sun, and it looks like a fairly bright star. But at that low altitude, its light has to pass through a thick layer of air, which blurs the view. The glow of twilight makes the view even murkier.

Without the ability to see surface features, it was hard to nail down the length of Mercury’s day. The planet always shows the same face when it’s closest to Earth. So it looked like Mercury was locked so that the same hemisphere always faced the Sun, just as the same side of the Moon always faces Earth.

But that’s not right. Radio telescopes have showed that Mercury makes three turns on its axis for every two orbits around the Sun. That means a “day” on Mercury — the time from one noon to the next — lasts 176 Earth days — long days and nights for the Sun’s closest planet.

Mercury appears near the Moon the next couple of mornings. It’s to the lower left of the Moon tomorrow, and closer to the right on Monday.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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