Mercury Enters Early Morning Comet Traffic Jam

Mercury is now visible low in the southeastern sky below Virgo’s brightest star Spica. The planet will rise higher in the coming days and get easier to see. To find it, sweep the area to the lower left of Spica 5-10 degrees above the horizon with binoculars. This map shows the sky about 50 minutes before sunrise facing southeast. All maps: Stellarium

As the arc of dawn swelled in the eastern sky, we thought we were done observing. Jim, Eric, Greg and I had come to this dark place Sunday morning to look for comets in our telescopes. Clouds were causing trouble, but we exploited every starry hole we could find, eventually adding Jupiter, Mars and double stars to our list.

Comet ISON lines up with the planets Mercury and Saturn 5-10 degrees above the southeastern horizon on Nov. 23. Don’t take the comet’s appearance too literally. It’s hard to know how bright it will be on the date.

Then Mercury showed up. Sure enough, below Spica in Virgo, a tiny “star” winked between cloud banks barely bright enough to see with the naked eye. Binoculars made quick work of it, and through the telescope we saw a thick crescent made gooey by atmospheric turbulence.

Mercury pairs up with Saturn on the 25th and 26th. The wire-thin crescent moon joins the crew on Dec. 1.

Mercury enters a traffic jam of early dawn sights: comets ISON, Lovejoy, Encke and the planets Mars and Jupiter. Any more and I think I’ll bust.  But there will be more. Much more. As Comet ISON speeds sunward toward its close with our star on Nov. 28, it will join Mercury and the planet Saturn. Once ISON’s departed the scene, Mercury and Saturn will have a close conjunction on Nov. 25 and 26. And it’s capped off finally on December with the crescent moon passes between the two planets before sunrise. Wow! I’m out of breath and I haven’t even stepped outside yet.

8 Responses

  1. Edward M. Boll

    Maybe ISON will pull a Panstaarrs. It looked good at first, then dismal, but all in all ended up putting on a good show.

    1. astrobob

      We’ll soon see! I’ve noticed that the comet has not been brightening much the past few days. It seems static though the tail has been growing slightly longer.

  2. Sean

    finally spotted Mercury this AM after having not seen it since early August i think. i spotted it naked-eye very low about an hour 10 minutes prior to sunrise, but at that time and for at least the next ten minutes i would say there was absolutely no need 4 binoculars as it shone relatively brightly. perhaps for people who want to spot it a little later/higher they could come in handy. i mean, i looked at in in my binos anyway but they weren’t necessary to find it, a bit down the ecliptic from Spica.

    1. astrobob

      Thanks Sean for sharing your Mercury views. I always lean more toward having them handy since it’s tougher to find these things if you’re a novice.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Bob,
      None that I’ve heard of. The only one with a close view would be the orbiting Mercury MESSENGER craft, but it’s programmed to look down and there’s nothing on the MESSENGER site indicating they plan to observe it. If there had been any, we would have heard about it by now. All spacecraft available are really focused on ISON right now. That said, it’s possible Encke may show up by chance in STEREO images.

  3. Steve Smith

    This morning, 11/15, brought an awesome sunrise to Duluth. The haze allowed the sun’s surface to be clearly visible in the first half hour or so as it rose above the horizon. I noticed a small, round black dot in the southwest area of the sun’s surface. Curious…is this Mercury or a sun spot? Thanks!

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