Have you ever seen the closest planet to the Sun? If you wish to tick Mercury off your to-see list, particularly if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, now’s the time to be scrutinising the eastern sky shortly before sunrise for the planet’s rosy glow. On 29 April (30 April in Australasia), Mercury attains a greatest westerly elongation of 27 degrees from the Sun – just 4 precent short of the farthest it can ever appear from our parent star.
Observing conditions for Mercury under southern skies are so good over the next fortnight (weather permitting) that skywatchers in Australia and New Zealand can comfortably view the planet in a truly dark sky from a viewing location that offers an unobstructed view of the east-northeast horizon about 1½ hours before sunrise.
Mercury’s magnitude grows from +0.7 to zero over the next two weeks, but atmospheric dimming close to the horizon will make it appear up to a magnitude fainter. Even so, the innermost planet will be a conspicuous dawn object for Southern Hemisphere observers through to the middle of May.
The old Moon gets close to Mercury and UranusMercury crosses the constellation border from Cetus into Pisces on 1 May and has a close encounter with an old crescent Moon on 14 May. On this date, observers in Australasia should look low to the east-northeast horizon an hour before sunrise to see the 27-day-old Moon just 2 degrees to the right of the magnitude -0.2 planet. Small telescopes and binoculars magnifying 20× or less will show the pair in the same field of view. And as a bonus for owners of binoculars, magnitude +5.9 planet Uranus also lies 2¼ degrees to the left of Mercury on this morning!