Have you ever seen the planet Mercury? Most people haven’t. It is an elusive object, either setting very shortly after the Sun in the evening or rising just before the Sun in the early morning. So most of the time it is hidden in the Sun’s glare.
Just occasionally, though, it strays far enough away from the Sun to be visible. The month of February gives us a good chance to see it. It will appear low down on the western sky in the middle of the month, reaching its greatest distance from the setting Sun on the evening of Saturday, February 16. If you scan low in the western sky just after sunset, it will be the only star-like object that you can see.
Just one word of warning: if you use binoculars, make quite sure that the Sun has set. Otherwise, even a brief accidental look at the Sun through them could result in blindness.
Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, completing one orbit of the Sun every 88 days. Its peak daytime temperature is over 400°C. It is a rocky planet, just like Earth, but it is smaller and less massive than Earth, so the gravitational pull at its surface is less than half that of Earth. It has no atmosphere of any significance, and its surface is covered with craters, rather like the Moon. It is altogether a rather inhospitable place.
The Torbay Astronomical Society will be meeting twice this month, at Torquay Boys’ Grammar School in Shiphay Manor Drive, starting at 7.30pm. The first meeting, on Thursday, February 7, will be an observational evening that will make use of our new telescope. (If it is cloudy, then two of our members will be giving short talks.) Then on Thursday, February 28 we shall be welcoming Professor Andrew Coates, who will be talking about The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer.
Visitors and new members are always welcome. There is a £3 charge for visitors to the lecture evenings, and a £2 charge for the observational evenings. Annual membership is a mere £15.