Mercury at greatest elongation west

Thursday 28th Nov 201912:18

Mercury will be well placed for observation in the dawn sky, shining brightly at mag -0.6.

From London, it will be difficult to observe as it will appear no higher than 10° above the horizon. It will rise at 05:39 (BST) – 2 hours and 0 minutes before the Sun – and reach an altitude of 10° above the south-eastern horizon before fading from view as dawn breaks at around 07:07.

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 20° to the Sun’s west.

Mercury in coming weeks

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

11 Nov 2019 15:16 GMT  – Mercury at inferior solar conjunction
11 Nov 2019 15:20 GMT  – Transit of Mercury
25 Nov 2019 10:24 GMT  – Mercury at dichotomy
28 Nov 2019 12:18 GMT  – Mercury at greatest elongation west

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 London local time.

Date Sun
sets at
rises at
Altitude of Mercury
at sunrise
Direction of Mercury
at sunrise
21 Nov 2019 07:25 05:42 12° west
28 Nov 2019 07:37 05:38 14° west
05 Dec 2019 07:47 06:00 12° west
12 Dec 2019 07:55 06:31 south-west
19 Dec 2019 08:01 07:03 south-west
26 Dec 2019 08:04 07:33 south-west
02 Jan 2020 08:05 07:58 south-west
09 Jan 2020 08:03 08:16 -1° south-west
16 Jan 2020 07:58 08:26 -4° south-west
23 Jan 2020 07:51 08:28 -5° south-west
30 Jan 2020 07:42 08:23 -6° south-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 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.

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 London varies between 61° (sunrise at the autumn equinox) and 15° (sunrise at the spring equinox). On November 28, the ecliptic is inclined at 42° to the eastern dawn horizon, as shown by the yellow line in the planetarium view above, meaning that on this occasion Mercury is moderately well placed for viewing from London.

This entry in the observing calendar was provided by