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Show friends and family 2 planets

Around Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. – November 23, 2017 – impress your family and friends by finding and pointing out the most elusive planet, Mercury, and a second planet, Saturn, in the west after sunset. Both worlds were passed by the moon earlier this week, and both are still up there after sunset, low in the western sky.

On November 23, the waxing crescent moon will be the first celestial body to pop out after sunset. The lit portion of the moon will be pointing in the general direction of Saturn and Mercury. These worlds are close to the horizon, and they set soon after sunset, so timing is everything here. Both planets should be visible to the unaided eye, but any amount of haze or murk on your horizon will obscure them. Binoculars may come in handy, if you have them.

Mercury is the innermost planet of the solar system and never strays far from the sun in Earth’s sky. For much of the time, this world is lost in the sun’s glare. Right now is good time to catch Mercury, though, because this planet is swinging to its greatest evening elongation, or its greatest angular distance from the setting sun. Depending on where you live worldwide, Mercury will reach its greatest elongation on November 23 or 24. More about that below.

Saturn, meanwhile, is toward the end of its evening apparition for 2017. It’s vanishing into evening twilight, but slowly. It’ll be visible another few weeks, probably, for those with clear skies all the way to the western horizon after sunset.

View larger. | Ken Christison in northeastern North Carolina caught the moon and Mercury on November 19, 2017. He wrote: “Mercury is to the right of the 2nd tree from the left.”

View larger. | Eliot Herman in Tucson, Arizona caught the one-day crescent moon (with earthshine) on November 19, 2017 – with Mercury (to left) and Saturn (above left). Captured with a Nikon D850 and a Nikon 105 mm VR macro lens. The NEF image was converted to TIF and deconvoluted prior to Photoshop adjustment.

Mercury first entered our evening sky on October 8, 2017. Its evening reign will end on December 13, when the planet crosses (more or less) between us and the sun and thus enters the morning sky (it won’t pass directly between us and the sun this time, by the way; if it did there’d be a Mercury transit, like the one in May 2016).

At its greatest evening elongation (November 24 at about 0 UTC), Mercury reaches a maximum of 22o east of the sun. For reference, your fist at an arm length spans about 10o of sky.

So Mercury is now farthest east of the sun for this evening apparition, shining rather low in the west at sunset and staying out for its maximum time after sundown. At mid-northern latitudes, Mercury sets somewhat more than an hour after sunset. At the equator, Mercury sets about one and one-half hours after the sun; and at temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Mercury sets about one and three-quarter hours after the sun. Click here for an almanac giving you Mercury’s setting time in your sky.

If all goes well, you might see Mercury low in the west with the eye alone within an hour after sunset.

But don’t mistake Saturn, which shines higher up in the western sky, for Mercury. Although Mercury shines a solid two times brighter than Saturn, Mercury sits deeper in the glow of evening twilight.

If you miss Mercury and/or Saturn this evening, try again after sunset for the next week or two. And then keep watching …

Mercury and Saturn will come to within 3o of one another on November 28. Three degrees on the sky’s dome is about the width of your thumb at an arm’s length from your eye. That’s a small enough gap for these two worlds to take stage in a single binocular field of view.

View larger. | By November 20, the moon had edged up past Saturn. Richard Hasbrouck in Truchas, New Mexico wrote: “My wife said ‘look out to the southwest,’ and there it was. Grabbed camera and dashed out to the end of the drive (to avoid power lines). Saturn is just visible below and to the left. Lights of Los Alamos are in the lower right.”

Bottom line: Watch for Mercury (Saturn) after sunset on November 23, 2017 and keep watching as these two worlds come closer together

Bottom line: Given clear skies, try your luck at catching Mercury (and Saturn) in the western sky after sunset.

Bruce McClure