Venus and Mercury kissing in the west

By Phil Plait | March 30, 2010 12:45 pm

Over the next few days, get yourself outside at sunset and look west. As the sky darkens, Venus will be obvious and easy to spot above the horizon, a brilliant beacon hovering in the sky. But for a few days, the elusive Mercury will also be popping in for a visit!

Mercury orbits much closer to the Sun than Earth does, and so from our vantage point never seems to stray far from our nearest star. It’s always lurking in the twilight, and most people can go their whole lives without seeing it. It’s rumored (though by no means established fact) that Copernicus himself never saw Mercury. But this week will provide you with an excellent chance to spot it. It will stay near Venus for several days, and with no other bright stars nearby it will be fairly easy to pick out.

Both Mercury and Venus move faster in their orbits than Earth does, so if you go out every night you’ll see them change positions slightly in the sky. From our perspective, Venus is on the far side of the Sun, and Mercury to the side. After about April 10, Mercury will start to fade rapidly, so get out there and take a look! More info and diagrams to help you spot the planetary duo can be found at the Sky and Telescope website.

And I’ll add that if you have a digital camera, try to get some photos! The planets are bright enough to show up in images easily, and if you get an interesting foreground object (a tree, a bridge, etc.) you can get some very nice shots.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff
MORE ABOUT: Mercury, Venus

Comments (37)

  1. If you use a video camera on digital zoom Venus makes for a very nice UFO. Maybe it and Mercury can be having a little space battle. :)

    Pew pew!

  2. If the clouds ever clear here in MA…

  3. Ginger Yellow

    “It will be obvious and easy to spot above the horizon”

    This assumes you can see the horizon or anything near it. Not so easy in central London. Especially in March April. Not being able to stargaze is the one thing that seriously makes me want to move out of the city.

  4. Sili

    Unfortunately my Western horizon is crap. It’ll have to wait till they’re in the East. (And even then I’d have to get out in the open.)

  5. jcm

    have been doing some naked eye observations. This will be an oportunity for to show my family, provided the weather cooperates, these two celestial neighbors.

    I must say that my astronomy software (Starry Night, http://www.starrynightstore.com/, and Stellarium, http://www.stellarium.org/), although they provide accurate positions, might not to do justice than actually observing these planets through a telescope and photographing them.

  6. Brian

    Thanks for the heads up, Phil. I’ve never seen Mercury, but I’ll try to remedy that this week.

  7. It’s amazing to think that Venus is the third brightest object after the Sun and Moon, that’s why it has the power to punch through the evening twighlight. It’s good to see Venus, “Earth’s evil twin” glowing brightly at dusk.

    Venus is a hellish place with sulphuric acid clouds, and an atmospheric pressure like being 1 km under the sea, but it sure looks good in the evening sky. I haven’t had a chance to see Mercury yet though, must do !!

  8. t-storm

    According to my google sky map on my new Droid, mercur, venus, the sun, jupiter, uranus, and neptune make an almost veritcal line (if you could see below the horizon, which the magic phone can). Pretty neat.

  9. George Martin

    Phil,

    Thanks for the reminder. I had planned to try for Venus and Mercury tonight but might have forgotten if it had not been for your post. I saw them at 19:57 MDT. I might have seen them a few minutes earlier but that was when I looked. I had seen Venus by itself about ten minutes earlier.

    According to an ephemeris program I have, civil twilight ended at 19:52 for my location. Venus, per the program, was at -3.73 and Mercury was at -1.09 magnitude. Also visible at the same time were Mars, +0.14 (near transit) and Saturn, +0.57 (towards the Eastern horizon). So four planets this evening and for the next few evenings to come.

    I’ve seen four planets in the early morning before sunrise a number of times, but this is the first time in recent memory I’ve seen four in the evening.

    George

  10. sylva333

    Can anyone tell me how to take a picture of Mercury (or stars for that matter) with my digital camera? Do I need to have a tripod and do a long exposure? If so, how long? I have wanted to do this, I was just not sure how.

  11. Thameron

    People interested in knowing where the planets are should download Stellarium (Google it). It is like having your own personal planetarium which you can set to your position so you will know what is in your own sky (even when you can’t see it) and it is free . I highly recommend it.

  12. Re 9:
    A tripod is good, or brace your camera against something solid, like a brick. For Mercury, 15 seconds should be plenty. You could probably do with less.
    I have a few braced Mercury photos on my blog. See:
    http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/2008/03/946.html

    This is about as high as it gets in the sky- and part of that could be that I’m in the Southern Hemisphere.

  13. Will this be visible in the southern hemisphere?

  14. MadScientist

    It does sound very silly to claim that Copernicus never saw Mercury – after all he was one of the most assiduous observers of his era and the observations made under his supervision were used for a very long time after his death. However, as I sit at an observatory and tease the locals about the poor seeing conditions (Mauna Kea has a MUCH better view!), it can hardly be said that these astronomers never observe anything. For once-off observations they’d have a much better chance of getting the data they want if they can make use of one of the high altitude observatories, but for other observations the lousy conditions simply mean they don’t get as much observing time. So Copernicus is likely to have observed Mercury numerous times – perhaps just not as frequently as he would have wished.

  15. Venus and Mercury kissing in the west

    This is seriously all I could think about when I read that title. Damn your phrasing.

  16. Jon Hanford

    SpaceWeather.com also has a series of finder charts from April 1-5: http://www.spaceweather.com/
    Although not labeled, the pair will appear just above Pisces and to the lower left of Aries. And yes, this event should be visible from the southern hemisphere. SpaceWeather will also post a gallery of images it receives of the conjunction. Lacking a camera, I’m planning to determine when Mercury first becomes visible to the naked eye and in my binoculars. Of course, I’ll have my scope out, too!

  17. rob

    was gonna try to see mecury last night, but it was too overcast. dang. gonna try again tonight.

    Lab Lemming: nice photo!

  18. Paul Wieland

    Mercury won’t be visible in the southern hemisphere (unless you are close to the equator) because it is north of the ecliptic and therefore stays too low to the horizon. On the bright side though, in general Mercury can be seen much easier in the south because it can get farther away from the sum (27 deg instead of 19) when it is south of the ecliptic. From New Zealand (41deg south) you can see it sometimes for 2 hours after sunset or before sunrise!

  19. I’m definitely going to have to look for this. I’ve never managed to see Mercury, or if I have, I haven’t recognized it. With any luck, I’ll be able to find someplace with a relatively clear view of the horizon. (At home: not a chance.)

  20. I managed to nab a photo myself, with a D3000 and the standard lens it came with. Turned out better than I thought. I’d like to try to attach this thing to my telescope…

    Clickety clickerson for a high-ish res photo

    edit: I marked them because I was showing to friends and didn’t want the obligatory “I can’t see it! Wah!’ :)

  21. Just saw it! I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mercury before, so thanks for the heads up. I’ve got Distant Suns on my iPod, which totally told me exactly to look, as well as that if I just happened to look straight up, and then turn around, I’d also get a good view of Mars and Saturn above some distant thunderheads.

  22. Success! I managed to get a cruddy photo with my point-and-shoot digital camera, horribly grainy because it was in “High ISO” mode so that I didn’t even upload a full-res version…but it’s visible! (Or something is, but it looks like it’s in exactly the right spot to be Mercury.)

  23. Gus Snarp

    Thanks Phil. I love to look at the stars, and to be able to identify some of what I’m seeing, but I’m not so much up on real sophisticated astronomy and I can’t justify buying a telescope just yet (maybe when my boys are a little older), so I really love to be able to find something simply and easily in the night sky. I saw Venus clearly last night, but there was a bank of clouds just below it, so no Mercury. I also identified the Hyades and the Pleiades as well, thanks to the Sky and Telescope link. We’ll try for Mercury again tonight.

    My three year old was so excited to see Venus. I wonder how much he connects it to the planet in his book of the solar system? I’m really fascinated as I try to tell him what stars and planets are. Does he get that he really lives on a planet? That the others are mostly as big or bigger than ours? That the sun is even larger? That the tiny stars are like the sun, but mostly bigger?

  24. I got them here in Tucson a few nights ago. Didn’t label them nicely, however!

    http://halfastro.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/img_2435.jpg

  25. DennyMo

    Thanks for the heads-up, Phil. I’m pretty sure last night was my first sighting of Mercury, very cool. Too bad sundown here is after the boys’ bed time, they would have enjoyed it too. I’m hoping for good weather Friday night so they can see it then. I’ll play around with the camera, see if I can figure out how to manually set the exposure time, and try to get some pictures tonight.

  26. The cool thing about going out last night was the neighbor’s kids wandered over to see what my son and I were doing. My son is 6, and these two boys are 6 and 9 I think. I told them to look at the very bright ‘star’ and told them it was Venus. Then told them to look down and right from it and that it was Mercury. They seemed genuinely interested. I then pointed out a few more things in the sky (Betelgeuse and Mars [pretty sure it was Mars, haha]). That’s a good feeling, seeing their young minds interested in that stuff.

    Most of my neighbors probably think I’m crazy for sitting in the driveway with a camera on a small bar stool though…

    Next, to modify a webcam and go out with my scope and netbook and grab some video/stills!

  27. Poopraham

    I’m really glad I saw this post! Thanks Phil. I went out to the San Francisco coast tonight and took some pictures, and I plan to head out some more over the next few days. This is my first time attempting astronomical photography. I’ve got low expectations, but it is fun! I’ll post some pictures when I get them developed.

  28. I went out with my fiance to see the planets because of you but I could only see Venus. It was my first time knowingly seeing a planet. Maybe Mercury took a while longer to be visible. Nevertheless, I owe a super romantic moment by a riverside to you. Thanks again Bad Astronomer!

  29. Gus Snarp

    Thanks again, last night was my last chance as the clouds will be rolling in tonight, and I got to see Mercury. Never would have noticed the little bugger otherwise. I don’t think the three year old could find it, but he’s still very excited about Venus.

    Now, what was that really bright star higher up in the Southern sky at about the same time?

  30. Mike Henry

    Thanks to my Astronomy mag and Stellerium program, I found out that Venus and Mercury were in close proximity last night (3rd April). As I live in the middle of the city and that buildings obscure most of the view in the west, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to see Mercury. I spotted Venus in the twilight easily and then saw Mercury for the first time ever. It was such a wonderful feeling as trying to spot Mercury had been elusive in the three years since I started to take an interest in astronomy. So now I can happily say that I’ve seen Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn with the naked eye, all in a high density city in Japan. Here is a link to my photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/24744995@N07/4488853348/

  31. Björn Lammers

    Tonight was only partly cloudy here in the Netherlands so I was able to take a few photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bjornlammers/4498345410/
    I had seen Mercury several times before, but it was especially easy to find with Venus as a guide. I even have some old photos of Venus, Mercury and Jupiter close together in the morning sky. Beautiful!

  32. Björn Lammers

    @Gus Snarp: that bright star in the south is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.

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