The planet Mercury is the most elusive of all of the naked eye planets. It orbits nearest the Sun, and so always rises just before the Sun or sets just after it, appearing in the glow of twilight. For much of Mercury’s orbit it isn’t visible at all, lying too close to the Sun in the sky.
To see Mercury at its best you have to wait until it’s as far as possible from the Sun in the sky; what astronomers refer to as its maximum elongation. When Mercury is at its maximum eastern elongation it’s visible just before sunrise; when it’s at its maximum western elongation its visible just after sunset.
At the moment Mercury is nearing its maximum western elongation and so makes a perfect evening target.
Mercury’s range of maximum elongation is between 18° and 28°, and in this particular apparition it’s furthest distance from the Sun is 22.7°. This occurs on 25 May 2014. Between now and the end of May look west just after sunset to try and catch a glimpse of Mercury shining at magnitude +0.4. It’ll be low in the sky, very low, but if you look towards the west, find Jupiter shining brilliantly, and follow a line down to the right at an angle of approx. 45° you should see Mercury a few degrees above the horizon.
If you’re trying to observe it through a telescope then make sure you wait until the Sun has well and truly set below the horizon. Mercury exhibits phases like the Moon and Venus which can be seen through a telescope but shows no other detail through an earth-based scope; on 25 May the disk of Mercury facing the Earth will only be 40% illuminated, making a fat crescent shape. Mercury’s angular size is the smallest of all the planets save distant Uranus and Neptune.
If you’ve ever seen Jupiter or Saturn through a telescope then you’ll know that they look spectacular despite their relatively meagre size. On 25 May, for example, Jupiter will appear to have a diameter of 33 arcseconds (written 33″), Saturn 19″, Venus 15″, Mars 12″, and Mercury a paltry 8″.
And you can actually see all five of these planets on the night of 25 May (or any night between now and the end of May. Mercury is the trickiest to find, but Jupiter will be blazing low in the east, Mars high in the south, Saturn lower in the south-east, and if you’re keen to get up before sunrise you’ll see Venus low in the east. (Uranus and Neptune are dawn objects too at the moment).
This evening, and for the next few evenings, just as the sky begins to darken after sunset, you’ve got a chance to see three of the five naked-eye planets side by side.
The two brightest naked eye planets (Venus and Jupiter) are close together, separated by only a few degrees, closing to 1° on 28 May (in what we call a conjunction). This should make them very easy to spot, low in the NW from around 30 minutes after sunset. In fact they’re close enough together that you could fit them both in one binocular field of view.
Mercury, however, might be trickier to spot. As the faintest naked-eye planet it will lurk in the twilight sky unseen for many people, just above the two brighter planets.
Remember, if you’re observing with binoculars or a telescope make sure you wait until the Sun has fully set
Today, Sunday 17 March 2013, it is the Spring Equilux throughout the UK (and possibly elsewhere too*) meaning that there are almost exactly 12 hours between sunrise and sunset.
This date differs from the Spring, or Vernal, Equinox (1102 GMT on Wednesday 20 March 2013) for a variety of reasons, which I explain in a previous post but here is a list of sunrise / sunset times for a variety of towns and cities throughout the UK:
|Town / City||Sunrise||Sunset|
As you can see the time between sunrise and sunset is not exactly 12 hours everywhere but this is the day of the year when that is closest to being true everywhere*. Yesterday the sun rose a couple of minutes later and set a couple of minutes earlier, and tomorrow the sun will rise a couple of minutes earlier and set a couple of minutes later, as the days lengthen.
Also, the reason that sunrise and sunset do not occur at the same time everywhere* is due mainly to the longitude of the town; the further east a town is the earlier it sees the sun in the morning, and the earlier it loses it again at night.
So happy Equilux everyone*!
* interestingly, the equilux does not occur on the same same day for everyone, it depends on your latitude. The closer you are to the equator the earlier the date of your equilux. For example the equilux in most US cities occurred yesterday, 16 March, and in cities near the equator there is never a day with exactly twelve hours between sunrise and sunset! Take Quito, the capital city of Ecuador (latitude 0 degrees 14 minutes south) for instance. The length of day there only ever varies between 12 hours and 6 minutes long and 12 hours and 8 minutes long!
Today, 22 September 2012, marks the moment of the Autumn Equinox. At 1449 UT (1549 BST) the Sun will cross from the northern hemisphere sky to the southern, and we’ll begin the slow approach to the Winter Solstice on 21 December.
The equinoxes (one in spring and one in autumn) are the two instances every year when the Sun makes that crossing from north to south and vice versa, and they’re commonly thought to be the days when day and night are equal length, but they’re really not, for reasons I’ve outline before:
- astronomers measure the timings of equinoxes, sunrises and sunsets based on the middle point of the Sun’s disk in the sky, so when you read a sunrise time it means the time that the centre of the Sun’s disk rises above the horizon. For a few minutes before that time the top of the Sun’s disk will already have risen, giving “daylight”.
- Even before this happens the sky is lit up by the Sun below the horizon, and we experience twilight. Most people would think that the sky is bright enough to call it “daytime” long before the Sun pops above the horizon, during the phase of civil twilight.
So today, even though day and night are said to be equal on the equinox, the “daytime” (i.e the start of civil twilight) started about 0630BST in Glasgow (where I am) and will end this evening around 2000BST, giving me 13.5 hours of “daylight”. (Londoners will have from about 0615 until 1930BST, or approx. 13.25 hours of “daylight”).
The day this year where I have exactly 12 hours of “daylight” (i.e. between the morning start and the evening end of civil twilight) is 11 October and this day is called the equilux. (In London the equilux falls on 12 October).
With summer coming to an end in the British Isles we start the return to the dark skies of autumn and winter. Depending on where you are in the country you will have been without truly dark skies for many weeks, maybe even months, as summer evening twilight lasts throughout the night during the summer.
This all-night-long twilight is almost gone throughout the UK, indeed anywhere on the mainland UK can see astronomically dark skies around 1am at the moment. Only the furthest north outpost of the British Isles still doesn’t have that opportunity.
On the island of Unst, the furthest north of the Shetland islands, lies the UK’s furthest-north town, Skaw, at 60°49’N and 00°47’W. This tiny village will see astronomical darkness return at 0043 on 24 August, lasting only 46 minutes until at 0129 the sun’s light begins to creep into the sky again.
The last time that astronomical darkness was seen at Skaw was on 18 April, over four months ago! Indeed this settlement is so far north that between around 13 and 29 June each year they never get out of civil twilight, meaning that the sky’s bright all night long!
Compare this with the furthest south town in the British Isles, Saint Clement in Jersey, in the Channel Islands. Astronomical darkness returned to Saint Clement on 4 July this year, having been absent since 8 June; only four weeks without true darkness!
Such is the effect of differences in latitude that these two settlements, separated by 1299 km, have such hugely different seasonal swings between summer and winter.
The northern hemisphere winter solstice occurs on 22 December 2011, at 0530 GMT At this point the Earth’s north pole will be tipped away from the Sun. As seen from Earth, the Sun will stop its slow daily decent south in our sky – over the past six months the Sun’s mid-day height above the horizon has been decreasing steadily – and once again turn north, getting higher in the sky at noon each day, until it gets to its highest point in midsummer 2012.
The actual day of the winter solstice – in this case 22 December 2011 – is commonly known as midwinter, the shortest day, and is the day when the Sun spends least time above the horizon. The further north of the equator you are, the more profound the effect. Indeed if you live within the arctic circle the Sun won’t actually rise today.
I’m not that far north, but by most standards I’m pretty far north, in Orkney delivering a midwinter astronomy festival. Orkney sits between 58°41′and 59°24′ North, and on midwinters day the Sun rises around 0905 and sets around 1515, and only spends 6h10m above the horizon. The winter nights in Orkney are long and dark.
But the morning after midwinter, the days will be lengthening. For many cultures then, midwinter symbolised the rebirth of the year, and ancient peoples often built monuments to celebrate the returning of the light.
And people in neolithic Orkney built some of the most incredible midwinter monuments that still exist. I’ll be spending this afternoon inside the 4700 year old chambered cairn at Maeshowe, built so that the passageway – which one has to crawl through to get into the inner chamber – points directly towards sunset on the shortest day.
Given clear skies, the last rays of midwinter sunlight stream into the burial chamber for a few moments before the sun sets.
The Orkney poet George Mackay Brown said of midwinter at Maeshowe:
The most exciting thing in Orkney, perhaps in Scotland, is going to happen this afternoon at sunset, in few other places even in Orkney can you see the wide hemisphere of sky in all its plenitude.
The winter sun just hangs over the ridge of the Coolags. Its setting will seal the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. At this season the sun is a pale wick between two gulfs of darkness. Surely there could be no darker place in the be-wintered world than the interior of Maeshowe.
One of the light rays is caught in this stone web of death. Through the long corridor it has found its way; it splashes the far wall of the chamber. The illumination lasts a few minutes, then is quenched
Winter after winter I never cease to wonder at the way primitive man arranged, in hewn stone, such powerful symbolism.
A few weeks ago I was waiting for it to get dark so I could go out into my garden and use my telescope. I decided to wait until the end of astronomical twilight (when there is no light from the Sun left in the sky) so that the sky was “properly dark”, but of course given that I live in a city (Glasgow) the light pollution from street lights means that it never actually gets “properly dark”.
So I decided to figure out exactly how long I should wait after sunset before going out to observe, or put another way, at what point does light pollution take over from twilight as the dominant source of light in the sky?
I carried out this little experiment on 28 April 2011, in my back garden on the Southside of Glasgow, under the following conditions:
Sunset Time: 2050 BST
Civil Twilight Ends (Sun 6 degrees below horizon): 2134 BST
Nautical Twilight Ends (Sun 12 degrees below horizon): 2232 BST
Astronomical Twilight Ends (Sun 18 degrees below horizon): 2358 BST
Longitude: 55.866 N
Latitude: 4.257 W
Sky conditions: 100% clear
[Incidentally, sitting out in my garden for four hours as it darkened was an absolute delight: I saw, as well as the emerging stars, many bats, some ducks, two foxes, and two passes of the International Space Station!]
Using a Sky Quality Meter I took readings of the sky brightness at the zenith every two minutes. The SQM-L makes measurements of the sky in magnitudes per square arcsecond, i.e. brightness per unit area in the sky. As a general rule, in city centres you would expect readings of 16-17, while in dark places you can get readings of 21-22. The higher the number the darker the sky. The darkest reading possible under a starry sky is around 22, as at that point the starlight itself becomes the limiting factor.
From experience I know that in my garden the darkest reading possible is around 18.5, so I decided to continue taking readings until I got fifteen in a row that were above 18.4, i.e. for half an hour the sky had not been significantly darkening. I got my first reading of above 18.4 at 2244 and the sky did not appreciably darken over the next 30 minutes.
At 2244 the sun was 13 degrees 07 minutes (13.117 degrees) below the horizon.
I graphed the results to see how they looked, and placed them alongside the projected results if I were under a dark sky free of light pollution i.e. so that the results could get as low as 22.0 at the end of astronomical twilight at 2358 BST
Result: After sunset, and throughout civil twilight (Sun between 0 and 6 degrees below the horizon) and nautical twilight (Sun between 6 and 12 degrees) the dominant source of light in the sky is sunlight.
However shortly after the end of nautical twilight light pollution became the dominant source of light in the sky, when the Sun was a little more than 13 degrees below the horizon.
This means that, while observing from my garden in Glasgow, I shouldn’t wait much later than the end of nautical twilight to go out observing, since beyond that point the sky will not significantly darken.
CAVEAT: It should be noted that this information is really only relevant for my specific circumstances, i.e. the light pollution in your sky may be better of worse than mine, and mean that the point at which it begins to dominate twilight is different for you.