Only 10% of the people on earth have seen Mercury
The subtitle above is a quote from our popular and long time staff member, Jerry Niehuser.
Indeed, according to a "Sky & Telescope" article, even Copernicus, developer of the sun-centered model of the solar system, never saw the planet Mercury. He based his model on observations of others.
Because of its proximity to the sun, Mercury is devilishly hard to find in the sky and only appears visible to us in our northern latitudes a few times a year, in the early morning hours just before sunrise or the early evening hours just before sunset. The planet is ALWAYS in the glare of our sun's light at the twilight hours when it is visible.
Mercury is something of a paradoxical planet. When it is at its brightest, it outshines any star in the sky but few people who see it know it for what it is. Only recently has much be learned about this smallest of planets. The satellite Mercury Messenger has been adding a great deal of date and photos to our knowledge base over the past couple of years. Mercury orbits the sun in about 88 earth days and it takes more than 58 earth days to rotate on its axis. It's rather hot on Mercury--about 800° in the daytime. Nights...which are awfully long can be as cold as -270°!
Mercury can be observed with a telescope. We look at it frequently during our programs when its available to view. Like the Moon and Venus, it goes through phases which are visible through a telescope.
The best time to view Mercury in 2014 is right now, January 24 - February 4. On January 31st, it will be at its highest point in the sky--about 10° in the west-southwest horizon about a half hour after sunset and only sinking below the horizon after it is fully dark. If you want to view it through a telescope, try to view is as soon as you find it and before it gets too low and in the sky with all the thick atmosphere at the horizon. According to "Sky & Telescope", Mercury’s disk will be gibbous at first, half lit on January 31st, and crescent in early February.
If you miss Mercury this time, we'll be viewing the planet again in late May at the Observatory where it will be teamed up with Jupiter and Capella.
Just a short piece of advice here, if you are going to view Mercury through a telescope or binocular, wait until the sun is fully below the horizon!