The photo above – by Radu Anghel in Bacau, Romania – shows our sun’s innermost planet Mercury after sunset in February 2019. Although it’s intrinsically a bright object, Mercury often appears as this photo shows it, in a sky washed with twilight colors. Seeing it often requires a search. On the other hand, for much of every year, Mercury is lost in the glare of the sun, not visible at all. It’s only at opportune times, when Mercury nears or reaches its greatest elongation (maximum angular separation) from the sun on the sky’s dome, that it’s possible to catch Mercury at its highest above the sunset or sunrise. Now is such a time.
In early August – as viewed from around Earth’s globe – Mercury appears in the east before sunrise. On August 9, 2019, Mercury will reach its greatest elongation of 19 degrees west of the sun. Given clear skies, there’s a good chance that you’ll see Mercury with the eye alone, for this world is a bright as a 1st-magnitude star.
Mercury will be over 18 degrees west of the sun all this upcoming week, from August 7 to 14. The amount of time that Mercury rises before the sun, however, depends on your latitude, with the Northern Hemisphere enjoying the advantage. We give the rising times for various latitudes below, but please keep in mind that these times presume a level horizon.
40 degrees north latitude
August 7: Mercury rises 1 hour and 26 minutes before the sun
August 14: Mercury rises 1 hour and 28 minutes before the sun
Equator (0 degrees latitude)
August 7: Mercury rises 1 hour and 16 minutes before the sun
August 14: Mercury rises 1 hour and 12 minutes before the sun
35 degrees south latitude
August 7: Mercury rises 1 hour and 9 minutes before the sun
August 14: Mercury rises 56 minutes before the sun
Want more specific rising times? Click here for a recommended sky almanac.
Looking things over, it appears that the opportunity for catching Mercury in the morning sky stays roughly the same throughout the week, especially at northerly latitudes. However, the one thing these rising times don’t tell you is that Mercury is actually brightening day by day. This world will be some 2 1/2 times brighter on August 14 than it appeared on August 7. By August 20, Mercury will be nearly 5 times brighter than it was on August 7. Moreover, from 40 degrees north latitude, Mercury will still rise 1 1/4 hours before the sun on August 20, so this world still may be visible on that date from northerly latitudes.
Given that Mercury is getting brighter by the day, you may be able to catch Mercury before sunrise for the next two weeks at northerly latitudes. Mercury brightens in our sky whenever this world waxes in phase. Mercury’s disk is about 30 percent illuminated by sunshine on August 7, yet about 80 percent illuminated on August 20. Although you need a telescope to see Mercury’s phase, its waxing phase nonetheless increases this world’s overall brightness to the unaided eye.
For the next couple of weeks, try to catch Mercury as the predawn darkness is giving way to dawn. To maximize your chances of catching Mercury, which looks like a star to the naked eye, find an unobstructed horizon in the direction of sunrise.
Want more information? Geocentric Ephemeris for Mercury 2019
Bottom line: Mercury will be over 18 degrees west of the sun – that is, visible in our eastern sky before sunrise – all this upcoming week, from about August 7 to 14, 2019. With Mercury getting brighter by the day, you might see it before sunrise for the next two weeks at latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.