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The Best Way to Spot Mercury in the Night Sky

February is a busy time for our night skies as the solar system displays its spectacular planets for our viewing pleasure. The Super Snow Moon makes way for Mercury in the moment of its greatest elongation on February 27, showing us just how bright this little planet shines. So cozy up with a mug of cocoa by the flames of a blazing fire pit and take in the incredible views.

Reasons to look for the messenger in the stars.

Mercury is named after the Roman messenger god. The planet’s name is related to the swiftness of the deity as it only takes 88 days for it to travel all the way around the sun! It’s also considered the most elusive of the five planets that are visible to our naked eye from Earth. It’s fast, it’s hard to track, but it’s also six times brighter than the brightest stars in our skies.

What is “elongation,” anyway, and what difference does it make?

First, a few fun facts about Mercury:

  • It’s the smallest planet in our solar system.
  • It’s closest to the sun.
  • It’s planetary density measures second only to Earth.
  • It only takes 88 Earth days for it to travel around the sun.
  • It has no moons. *Gasp*
  • A single Mercury day is equal to 176 Earth days. (But... how?)

Simply put, “elongation” refers to the distance between a planet and the sun in its orbit. The times of greatest elongation are when a planet is furthest from the sun, on an elliptical orbit.

Interesting, right? Fun aside, the one fact making the biggest impact on our ability to see Mercury from our planet is its proximity to the sun. Because it is so close, its visibility is often outshined by the light of our bright star. But as it reaches the greatest elongation and away from the blinding light of the sun, the little planet dances across our late evening and early morning skies towards the end of February.

So what’s the best way to see it?

Mercury burst onto the scene on February 15 but will be at its biggest and brightest at twilight (just after sunset when the there’s still a bit of daylight) on the evening of February 27 before it begins to fade out again through the beginning of March. It appears in the western sky, about a width of your hand from the horizon, not so high in the sky.

While it is elusive, it’s not hard to see at the right time if you know where to look. Orient yourself due north about 30 minutes after sunset, gaze to the west and look a little ways above the horizon and you’ll find the mighty little planet shining in the dusky skyline.




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