Sunday, April 11, 2010

Venus and Mercury are Alright Tonight


Venus and Mercury off my front porch tonight about 9 p.m. Mercury is the dimmer object located about 4 o'clock from the much brighter (though more distant) Venus.

Last night Jennifer and I spent a long time after the sunset watching the stars slowly come out as the orange glow dissipated into the dark, clear night. I knew Venus was the brightest object in our view to the west. I also knew the constellations Taurus and Perseus were out there too. I noticed a star that didn't seem to belong. Perhaps it was from a constellation I didn't know about. So, I checked the internet.

To my surprise, the star I was looking at near Venus was, in fact, the planet Mercury, which I have only consciously seen a few times my whole life. Mercury is usually low to the horizon and only visible for a few moments around sunset. You rarely get a good chance to see it.

But, three days ago Mercury reached its greatest point of elongation in the night sky. It is now partnered with Venus for the next couple of weeks. Mercury is roughly 80 million miles away tonight. Venus is about 140 million miles away. These distances vary, of course, depending on where the planets are in their respective orbits.

The feeling of these distances as a living experience rather than as just abstract numbers is something I've always connected with and is part of my fundamental attraction to astronomy. I see these planets with my naked eye as clearly as I would see a bird in flight or an oak tree on a distant ridge. The vastness of our solar system is a source of wonder to me.

So, tonight I took advantage of yet another clear twilight and snapped my first pic of Mercury.

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