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A hot time to look at Mercury

This mosaic of Mercury was created using 18 images taken by the Mariner 10 spacecraft on March 19, 1974
This mosaic of Mercury was created using 18 images taken by the Mariner 10 spacecraft on March 19, 1974  


(CNN) -- It's always up there -- just usually hidden by the glow of the sun and moon. But this month, sky watchers get their best chance this year to glimpse Mercury.

"Now is the best time to take a look at it," said William Schomaker, associate editor of Astronomy magazine.

Mercury is often visible with binoculars or even with the naked eye, but it's always near the sun and is hard to see in the twilight sky.

This month, Mercury swings away from the sun, moving to what astronomers call its Greatest Eastern Elongation.

On May 22, Mercury reaches its farthest point from the sun when it will be relatively high in the western sky, 22 degrees above the setting sun. It won't set until two hours after the sun.

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Schomaker says to view Mercury, go out about 30 minutes after sunset, look west and watch for a yellow-orange looking star. Mercury will be brighter than most stars, but not as bright as Jupiter.

"It turns out that Mercury is at half phase on May 16, which means that it will look like a first quarter moon to those who view it through binoculars or telescopes," said Schomaker. "By the time May 24 rolls around, it will look like a crescent moon."

Sky watchers also get an added bonus this month. On May 24, the crescent moon will hover just south of Mercury while Jupiter hangs to the lower right of the pair.

image
Looking west-northwest 30 minutes after sunset, May 24  

"One of the nice things about the conjunction is that it will help people find Mercury," said Schomaker.

According to NASA, Mercury will be about 86 million miles from Earth on May 16. And on May 24, the distance will be about 71 million miles.

Part of the problem in tracking Mercury is that the planet moves quickly across the sky. In Roman mythology, Mercury is the god of commerce, travel and thievery, the Roman counterpart of the Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the Gods.







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