Mercury at greatest elongation west

Dominic Ford, Editor
From the Inner Planets feed

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The sky at

In the southern hemisphere Mercury will be well placed for observation in the dawn sky, shining brightly at mag 0.3.

From Fairfield however, it will not be observable – it will reach its highest point in the sky during daytime and will be no higher than 2° above the horizon at dawn.

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Mercury's orbit lies closer to the Sun than the Earth's, meaning that it always appears close to the Sun and is very difficult to observe most of the time.

It is observable only for a few days each time it reaches greatest separation from the Sun – moments referred to as greatest elongation.

These apparitions take place alternately in the morning and evening skies, depending whether Mercury lies to the east of the Sun or to the west.

When it lies to the east, it rises and sets a short time after the Sun and is visible in early evening twilight. When it lies to the west of the Sun, it rises and sets a short time before the Sun and is visible shortly before sunrise.

On this occasion, it lies 27° to the Sun's west.

Mercury in coming weeks

The key moments in this apparition of Mercury are as follows:

14 Mar 2019 21:42 EDT – Mercury at inferior solar conjunction
11 Apr 2019 11:37 EDT – Mercury at greatest elongation west
12 Apr 2019 21:16 EDT – Mercury at dichotomy

After greatest elongation, the distance between Mercury and the Sun will decrease each night as it sinks back into the Sun's glare. The table below lists how long before sunrise Mercury will rise each night; all times are given in Fairfield local time.

Date Sun
sets at
rises at
Altitude of Mercury
at sunrise
Direction of Mercury
at sunrise
04 Apr 201906:3105:36west
11 Apr 201906:1905:26west
18 Apr 201906:0805:20west
25 Apr 201905:5805:15north-west
02 May 201905:4905:12north-west
09 May 201905:4005:13north-west
16 May 201905:3305:19north-west
23 May 201905:2705:34-1°north-west
30 May 201905:2205:57-5°north-west
06 Jun 201905:1906:25-9°west
13 Jun 201905:1806:52-13°west

A graph of the angular separation of Mercury from the Sun around the time of greatest elongation is available here.

Mercury's position

The position of Mercury when it reaches greatest elongation will be:

Object Right Ascension Declination Constellation Magnitude Angular Size
Mercury 23h39m30s -04°25' Aquarius 0.3 7.8"
Sun 01h18m +08°16' Pisces -26.7 31'55"

The coordinates above are given in J2000.0.

Seasonal effects

At each apparition, Mercury reaches a similar separation from the Sun – around 18–28°. This distance is set by the geometry of how big Mercury's orbit is, and how far away it is from the Earth.

Nonetheless, some times of the year are more favourable for viewing Mercury than others.

It appears most favourably in the evening sky around the time of the local spring equinox, and most favourably in the morning sky around the local autumn equinox.

These dates are reversed in the northern and southern hemispheres, such that a good apparition in one hemisphere will not be easily observable from the other.

This is comes about because Mercury always lies close to the line of the ecliptic, shown in yellow in the planetarium above. This is the line through the zodiacal constellations that the Sun follows through the year, and marks the flat plane in space in which all of the planets circle the Sun.

When Mercury rises a few hours ahead of the Sun, the altitude it reaches Mercury above the horizon before sunrise depends on two factors.

One is its angular separation from the Sun. But equally important is how steeply the line of the ecliptic is inclined to the horizon.

If Mercury is widely separated from the Sun along the ecliptic, this may not translate into a high altitude if the ecliptic meets the horizon at a very shallow angle, running almost parallel to it.

Conversely, if the ecliptic is almost perpendicular to the horizon, a much smaller separation from the Sun may place Mercury higher in the sky.

The inclination of the ecliptic plane to the horizon at Fairfield varies between 72° (sunrise at the autumn equinox) and 25° (sunrise at the spring equinox). On April 11, the ecliptic is inclined at 26° to the eastern dawn horizon, as shown by the yellow line in the planetarium view above, meaning that on this occasion Mercury is poorly placed for viewing from Fairfield.

The sky on 11 April 2019
Twilight ends
Twilight begins

6-day old moon
Waxing Crescent


6 days old

Rise Culm. Set
Mercury 05:26 11:14 17:01
Venus 05:12 10:55 16:38
Moon 10:51 18:18 00:44
Mars 08:27 15:55 23:24
Jupiter 00:32 05:10 09:48
Saturn 02:19 07:01 11:44
All times shown in EDT.


The circumstances of this event were computed using the DE405 planetary ephemeris published by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

This event was automatically generated by searching the ephemeris for planetary alignments which are of interest to amateur astronomers, and the text above was generated based on an estimate of your location.

Related news

11 Apr 2019, 11:37 EDT  –  Mercury at greatest elongation west
23 Jun 2019, 20:48 EDT  –  Mercury at greatest elongation east
09 Aug 2019, 23:26 EDT  –  Mercury at greatest elongation west
19 Oct 2019, 20:41 EDT  –  Mercury at greatest elongation east

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