Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Winged Messenger: Appearing Now on Your Western Horizon!

I saw something I've only seen once before in my life last night: the planet Mercury. It's not that hard to see it, but being so close to the sun, it must be at the highest point in its orbit to avoid being lost in the glare of twilight. Basically, I've missed it over the years from sheer laziness.

On the other hand, it's there. It doesn't look like much in a telescope, especially the kind of scopes I've had access to over the years. And satellites had only visited the planet once while I was growing up, and the satellite was only able to map a bit less than half the planet. It doesn't have showy rings or moons.

Even last night, I took only a few pictures of Mercury, but spent most of my time capturing the beautiful crescent moon (below). Mercury is basically the poor stepchild when compared to the other terrestrial planets of Venus (bathed in cloudy mystery), Earth, and Mars (we are leaving tire marks all over it right now, looking for signs of water and/or past life).
This is the joy of living in the times we are, though. We are in the midst of a voyage of discovery that humans can only do once in our history: to explore our Solar System in detail for the first time. Mercury actually is an interesting planet, and it has offered up a few surprises, like complicated surface structures, including large fault scarps, and a magnetic field. It even has a few wispy bits of an atmosphere and possible ice deposits in the polar regions. We are learning about these things because we've had a second satellite, Messenger, that has been orbiting the planet for the last two years (it arrived in 2008, but it took a complicated series of passes to establish an orbit in 2011).
All our planets have interesting stories, and it's more meaningful if you have actually made the effort to see the planets with your own eyes. Steven Schimmrich at Hudson Valley Geologist has a nice post on how to see Mercury over the next week or so (the post is what got me off my couch to have a look). To learn more about NASA's Messenger mission, check out this website.

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