Science Snippet:

2022 Astronomy Challenge Project 4

An image of the planet Mercury
A photo of Mercury taken by NASA’s MESSENGER probe.

This month’s challenge is a true challenge. We’ll be trying to find the most difficult of the planets on our list, Mercury. As well as that we’ll have a splendid opportunity to see a conjunction between two of the planets we’ve already seen: Jupiter and Venus. In addition, the Lyrids meteor shower peaks in the early morning of  April 22. Unfortunately, this is not a very impressive meteor shower to start with and this year the moon will be bright enough to reduce the number of visible meteors. You could, however, try to collect micrometeorites from this shower. (See my post: How to Catch a Comet.) Although Lyrids is not that impressive of a meteor shower, the meteors are usually bright. If you are awake well before sunrise on April 22, it might be worth a look. There will be a better meteor shower in the beginning of May. The Eta Aquarids meteor shower will peak early in the morning of May 6. You should look in the low eastern to southeastern sky. You can expect the most meteors just before it begins to get light. Both these meteor showers are better seen in the Southern Hemisphere.

Mercury will be visible after April 18 in the western sky shortly after sunset. Mercury always stays close to the sun. Start hunting low down in the sky 25 minutes after sunset. Look in the area where the sun has just disappeared. As the month progresses, Mercury will become dimmer but it will also appear higher in the sky. This will make it somewhat easier to find as you can hunt for it a little later when the sky is darker. Mercury will remain visible during the first week of May but as May progresses it will become harder and harder to find. If you see a star in the low western sky while it’s still light, you have found Mercury. Mercury may not look that bright because there’s still a lot of light in the sky. If you don’t manage to catch Mercury in this window of time, you can try again in the morning sky in October.

Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system. It is only one-third the size of the Earth and has no moons. If someone was living on Mercury, they would experience one day every two years. Living on Mercury would be extremely difficult. Mercury is a rocky planet that has no atmosphere to protect it from the sun. During the long Mercurian day the planet fries at 800 °F. At night, however, the temperature drops to around -280 °F. Since Mercury is closer to the sun, the sun would appear three times larger from Mercury than from Earth. Mercury’s surface is like our moon. It is rocky and covered in craters. Some of the craters near Mercury’s pole never see the sun. These regions of Mercury are at around -180 °F all the time.

The Venus-Jupiter conjunction is best seen in the early mornings between April 29 and May 1. The conjunction should appear best on the morning of April 30 about half an hour to an hour before sunrise in the eastern sky. The planets will appear only 0.2° apart. That is around half the width of a full moon. If you’re out at the right time you shouldn’t miss them.

(Note: all future Astronomy Challenges will be published on the 1st of the month.)

To see more about the 2022 Astronomy Challenge, click here.