This weekend, amateur astronomers and stargazers will be treated to a rare sight: the conjunction of Mercury and Mars in the sky. This has proven to be quite the confusing spectacle in the past, as people have often misinterpreted the conjunction of the two planets as the appearance of Mercury’s moon. Much like the appearance of other “pseudo-moons”, it is a mistake that litters the history of astronomy.
The conjunction will appear tonight, on February 8th, during the closest conjunction of two naked eye planets in 2013. This month offers a chance to see the fleeting Mercury in the sky, and the conjunction with Mars will provide the opportunity to see how Mercury would look in the night sky if it did indeed have a moon.
To see the conjunction, be sure to find a site with a clear view of the western horizon, grab some binoculars, and begin watching the skies at about 15 minutes after local sunset. According to astronomers, this should coincide with February 8th at 17:00 Universal Time! Look for a reddish dot just above that bright star that hangs low in the sky, and you’ll have your two planets looking very much like they’re in orbit of each other.
But be quick about it, since you’ll only have a 15-30 minute window (depending on latitude) to snare the pairing before they follow the setting Sun below the horizon. Photographing the pair will be tricky, though not impossible, since they present a very low contrast against the bright background twilight sky. And just in case you’re not impressed with the sight itself, consider that with Curiosity and other rovers operating on Mars and the Messenger satellite orbiting Mercury, permanent robotic “eyes” are monitoring both!
Good luck and good gazing! And if you happen to snap a picture of the conjunction, don’t hesitate to send it my way. I’ll be sure to post it with the deets of the amateur professional who made it happen!