© NASA/JPL/MESSENGER

Mercury reaches highest point in morning sky

Dominic Ford, Editor
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As seen from Fairfield , Mercury will reach its highest point in the sky in its 2019 morning apparition. It will be shining brightly at mag -0.6.

From Fairfield, this apparition will be well placed but tricky to observe, reaching a peak altitude of 17° above the horizon at sunrise on 28 Nov 2019.

Begin typing the name of a town near to you, and then select the town from the list of options which appear below.

The table below lists how high Mercury will appear at sunrise over the course of its the apparition. All times are given in Fairfield local time.

Date Sun
sets at
Mercury
rises at
Altitude
at sunrise
Direction
at sunrise
16 Nov 201906:4305:4310°west
19 Nov 201906:4705:2214°west
22 Nov 201906:5005:1016°west
25 Nov 201906:5405:0717°west
28 Nov 201906:5705:0817°west
01 Dec 201907:0005:1416°west
04 Dec 201907:0305:2215°west
07 Dec 201907:0605:3214°west
10 Dec 201907:0905:4312°west
13 Dec 201907:1105:5410°west
16 Dec 201907:1306:06west
19 Dec 201907:1506:17south-west
22 Dec 201907:1706:29south-west

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

Observing Mercury

The 2019 morning apparition of Mercury
25 Nov 2019 – Mercury at dichotomy
27 Nov 2019 – Mercury reaches highest point in morning sky
28 Nov 2019 – Mercury at greatest elongation west

Mercury's orbit lies closer to the Sun than the Earth's, meaning that it always appears close to the Sun and is lost in the Sun's glare much of the time.

It is observable for only a few days each time it reaches greatest separation from the Sun – moments referred to as greatest elongation. These apparitions repeat roughly once every 3–4 months.

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.

At each apparition, Mercury reaches a separation from the Sun of around 18–28°. On this occasion, it will lie 20° to the Sun's west at greatest elongation. This distance is set by the geometry of how big Mercury's orbit is, and how far away it is from the Earth.

However, some times of the year are more favourable for viewing Mercury than others. From Fairfield, it reaches a maximum altitude of between 10° and 19° at sunrise during each morning apparition, depending on the time of year. During its 2019 apparition, it will peak at 17° above the horizon at sunrise on 28 Nov 2019.

Mercury's elliptical orbit

The orbits of the planets Mercury, Venus and Earth, drawn to scale. The orbit of Mercury is significantly non-circular. Click to expand.

Mercury is unusual among the planets for having a significantly non-circular orbit, which varies in its distance from the Sun by 52% between its closest approach (perihelion, labelled P in the diagram to the right) and greatest distance (aphelion, labelled A).

This means that Mercury's separation from the Sun at greatest elongation varies, depending where it is lies relative to the aphelion or perihelion points of its orbit. In mid-September and mid-March, the Earth is well placed to view the long axis of Mercury's orbit edge-on.

This means that if Mercury appears in the evening sky in mid-September, or in the morning sky in mid-March, then it appears more prominent than usual, being much better separated from the Sun than at other times.

The inclination of the ecliptic to the horizon

A secondary effect is that at all times, Mercury lies close to a line across the sky called the ecliptic, which is shown in yellow in the planetarium above. This line traces the path that the Sun takes through the zodiacal constellations every year, and shows the plane of the Earth's orbit around the Sun. Since all the planets circle the Sun in almost exactly the same plane, it also closely follows the planes of the orbits of the other planets, too.

When Mercury is widely separated from the Sun, it is separated from it along the line of the ecliptic. But, at different times of year, this translates into Mercury being at different altitudes above the horizon at sunrise. This is because at different times of year, the ecliptic meets the horizon at different angles at sunrise.

If the ecliptic meets the horizon at a shallow angle, then even if Mercury is widely separated from the Sun, it may not appear very high above the horizon at sunrise. Conversely, if the ecliptic is almost perpendicular to the horizon, Mercury may appear much higher in the sky, even if it is actually much closer to the Sun.

The seasonal dependence of this is that at sunset, the ecliptic makes its steepest angle to the horizon at the spring equinox – in March in the northern hemisphere, and in September in the southern hemisphere. Conversely, it meets the horizon at its shallowest angle at the autumn equinox. Because the seasons are opposite in the northern and southern hemispheres, a good apparition of Mercury in one hemisphere will usually be badly placed in the other.

At sunrise, these dates are also inverted, so that for morning apparitions of Mercury, the ecliptic makes its steepest angle to the horizon at the autumn equinox, and its shallowest angle to the horizon at the spring equinox.

The optimum time for an apparition of Mercury

The maximum altitude of Mercury during all its morning apparitions between 2000 and 2050, as a function of the day of the year on which greatest western elongation occurs. Different colours show the altitudes observed from different latitudes. Click to expand.

The two effects described above are of similar magnitude, and conspire to make Mercury much easier to observe from the southern hemisphere than from the north.

In the southern hemisphere, apparitions of Mercury which occur when the ecliptic plane is favourably inclined to the horizon also coincide with apparitions when Mercury is close to aphelion. In the northern hemisphere, unfortunately the opposite is true: when the ecliptic plane is favourably inclined, Mercury is close to perihelion.

The plot to the right shows the maximum altitude of Mercury during all its morning apparitions between 2000 and 2050, as observed from a range of different latitudes on Earth. The highest altitudes are seen exclusively from the southern hemisphere.

Mercury's position

The position of Mercury when it reaches its highest point will be:

Object Right Ascension Declination Constellation Magnitude Angular Size
Mercury 14h56m00s -14°16' Libra -0.6 6.7"
Sun 16h15m -21°15' Scorpius -26.7 32'25"

The coordinates above are given in J2000.0.

The sky on 27 November 2019
Sunrise
06:53
Sunset
16:25
Twilight ends
18:03
Twilight begins
05:15

1-day old moon
Waxing Crescent

1%

1 day old

Planets
Rise Culm. Set
Mercury 05:07 10:20 15:33
Venus 09:07 13:35 18:04
Moon 07:55 12:40 17:25
Mars 04:22 09:40 14:58
Jupiter 08:46 13:21 17:56
Saturn 10:02 14:42 19:22
All times shown in EST.

Source

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

27 Nov 2019  –  Mercury reaches highest point in morning sky
28 Nov 2019  –  Mercury at greatest elongation west
10 Feb 2020  –  Mercury at greatest elongation east
11 Feb 2020  –  Mercury reaches highest point in evening sky

Image credit

© NASA/JPL/MESSENGER

Fairfield

Latitude:
Longitude:
Timezone:

41.14°N
73.26°W
EST

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