Tag Archives: Mercury

NASA Night Sky Notes for March 2019: Springtime Planet Party

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in March, 2019.

By David Prosper

March brings longer days for Northern Hemisphere observers, especially by the time of the equinox. Early risers are treated to the majority of the bright planets dancing in the morning skies, with the Moon passing between them at the beginning and end of the month.

The vernal equinox occurs on March 20, marking the official beginning of spring for the Northern Hemisphere. Our Sun shines equally on the Northern and Southern Hemispheres during the moment of equinox, which is why the March and September equinoxes are the only times of the year when the Earth’s north and south poles are simultaneously lit by sunlight. Exacting astronomers will note that the length of day and night on the equinox are not precisely equal; the date when they are closest to equal depends on your latitude, and may occur a few days earlier or later than the equinox itself. One complicating factor is that the Sun isn’t a point light source, but a disc. Its edge is refracted by our atmosphere as it rises and sets, which adds several minutes of light to every day. The Sun doesn’t neatly wink on and off at sunrise and sunset like a light bulb, and so there isn’t a perfect split of day and night on the equinox – but it’s very close!

Ruddy Mars still shines in the west after sunset. Mars scoots across the early evening skies from Aries towards Taurus and meets the sparkling Pleiades star cluster by month’s end.

March opens with the morning planets of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus spread out over the southeastern horizon before sunrise. A crescent Moon comes very close to Saturn on the 1st and occults the ringed planet during the daytime. Lucky observers may be able to spot Mercury by the end of the month. March 31 opens with a beautiful set of planets and a crescent Moon strung diagonally across the early morning sky. Start with bright Jupiter, almost due south shortly before dawn. Then slide down and east towards Saturn, prominent but not nearly as bright as Jupiter. Continue east to the Moon, and then towards the beacon that is Venus, its gleam piercing through the early morning light. End with a challenge: can you find elusive Mercury above the eastern horizon? Binoculars may be needed to spot the closest planet to the Sun as it will be low and obscured by dawn’s encroaching glow. What a way to close out March!

Discover all of NASA’s current and future missions at nasa.gov


Earth from orbit on the March equinox, as viewed by EUMETSAT. Notice how the terminator – the line between day and night – touches both the north and south poles. Additional information can be found at http://bit.ly/earthequinox Image credit: NASA/Robert Simmo  

The morning planets on March 31. Image created with assistance from Stellarium

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

NASA Night Sky Notes for February 2019: Hexagon At Night, Quartet In The Morning

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in February, 2019.

By David Prosper

The stars that make up the Winter Hexagon asterism are some of the brightest in the night sky and February evenings are a great time to enjoy their sparkly splendor. The Winter Hexagon is so large in size that the six stars that make up its points are also the brightest members of six different constellations, making the Hexagon a great starting point for learning the winter sky. Find the Hexagon by looking southeast after sunset and finding the bright red star that forms the “left shoulder” of the constellation Orion: Betelgeuse. You can think of Betelgeuse as the center of a large irregular clock, with the Winter Hexagon stars as the clock’s hour numbers. Move diagonally across Orion to spot its “right foot,” the bright star Rigel. Now move clockwise from Rigel to the brightest star in the night sky: Sirius in Canis Major. Continue ticking along clockwise to Procyon in Canis Minor and then towards Pollux, the brighter of the Gemini twins. Keep moving around the circuit to find Capella in Auriga, and finish at orange Aldebaran, the “eye” of the V-shaped face of Taurus the Bull.

Two naked-eye planets are visible in the evening sky this month. As red Mars moves across Pisces, NASA’s InSight Mission is readying its suite of geological instruments designed to study the Martian interior. InSight and the rest of humanity’s robotic Martian emissaries will soon be joined by the Mars 2020 rover. The SUV-sized robot is slated to launch next year on a mission to study the possibility of past life on the red planet. A conjunction between Mars and Uranus on February 13 will be a treat for telescopic observers. Mars will pass a little over a degree away from Uranus and larger magnifications will allow comparisons between the small red disc of dusty Mars with the smaller and much more distant blue-green disc of ice giant Uranus.

Speedy Mercury has a good showing this month and makes its highest appearance in the evening on February 27; spot it above the western horizon at sunset. An unobstructed western view and binoculars will greatly help in catching Mercury against the glow of evening twilight.

The morning planets put on quite a show in February. Look for the bright planets Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn above the eastern horizon all month, at times forming a neat lineup. A crescent Moon makes a stunning addition on the mornings of February 1-2, and again on the 28th. Watch over the course of the month as Venus travels from its position above Jupiter to below dimmer Saturn. Venus and Saturn will be in close conjunction on the 18th; see if you can fit both planets into the same telescopic field of view.  A telescope reveals the brilliant thin crescent phase of Venus waxing into a wide gibbous phase as the planet passes around the other side of our Sun. The Night Sky Network has a simple activity that helps explain the nature of both Venus and Mercury’s phases at bit.ly/venusphases

You can catch up on all of NASA’s current and future missions at nasa.gov

The stars of the Winter Hexagon
Image created with help from Stellarium

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

NASA Night Sky Notes for November 2018: The Dance of the Planets

Poster’s Note 1: After many years of providing wonderful and easily understandable content to astronomers and astronomy clubs around the world, NASA Space Place has handed over the monthly article distribution to the NASA Night Sky Network. Same excellent writing (and familiar writers for the moment), now to be known as “Night Sky Notes.”

Poster’s Note 2: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in November, 2018.

By Jane Houston Jones and David Prosper

November’s crisp autumn skies bring great views of our planetary neighbors. The Moon pairs up with Saturn and Mars in the evenings, and mornings feature eye-catching arrangements with dazzling Venus. Stargazers wanting a challenge can observe a notable opposition by asteroid 3 Juno on the 17th and watch for a few bright Leonid meteors.

Red Mars gleams high in the southern sky after sunset. Saturn sits westward in the constellation Sagittarius. A young crescent Moon passes near Saturn on the 10th and 11th. On the 15th a first quarter Moon skims by Mars, coming within 1 degree of the planet. The red planet receives a new visitor on November 26th, when NASA’s InSight mission lands and begins its investigation of the planet’s interior. News briefings and commentary will be streamed live at: bit.ly/landsafe

Two bright planets hang low over the western horizon after sunset as November begins: Jupiter and Mercury. They may be hard to see, but binoculars and an unobstructed western horizon will help determined observers spot them right after sunset. Both disappear into the Sun’s glare by mid-month.

Early risers are treated to brilliant Venus sparkling in the eastern sky before dawn, easily outshining everything except the Sun and Moon. On November 6th, find a location with clear view of the eastern horizon to spot Venus next to a thin crescent Moon, making a triangle with the bright star Spica. The following mornings watch Venus move up towards Spica, coming within two degrees of the star by the second full week of November. Venus will be up three hours before sunrise by month’s end – a huge change in just weeks! Telescopic observers are treated to a large, 61” wide, yet razor-thin crescent at November’s beginning, shrinking to 41” across by the end of the month as its crescent waxes.

Observers looking for a challenge can hunt asteroid 3 Juno, so named because it was the third asteroid discovered. Juno travels through the constellation Eridanus and rises in the east after sunset. On November 17th, Juno is at opposition and shines at magnitude 7.4, its brightest showing since 1983! Look for Juno near the 4.7 magnitude double star 32 Eridani in the nights leading up to opposition. It is bright enough to spot through binoculars, but still appears as a star-like point of light. If you aren’t sure if you have identified Juno, try sketching or photographing its star field, then return to the same area over the next several days to spot its movement.

The Leonids are expected to peak on the night of the 17th through the morning of the 18th. This meteor shower has brought “meteor storms” as recently as 2002, but a storm is not expected this year. All but the brightest meteors will be drowned out by a waxing gibbous Moon.

Stay warm and enjoy this month’s dance of the planets!

You can catch up on all of NASA’s current and future missions at nasa.gov

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Caption: This finder chart shows the path of the asteroid 3 Juno as it glides past 32 Eridani in November 2018. The asteroid’s position is highlighted for selected dates, including its opposition on the 17th. Image created in Stellarium for NASA Night Sky Network.

About The NASA Night Sky Network

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!