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Mercury is the smallest planet of the solar system and the one closest to the Sun. The planet has an orbit of just 88 days at swings rapidly around the Sun. Usually, the planet is quite hard to spot, due to its relatively small size, with it having a width just a third of Earth’s, and because it passes so close to the Sun.
Our host star’s brightness regularly obscures the planet from the view of Earth, but right now it is in ‘elongation’.
Elongation refers to a planet’s orbit when it is to the side of the Sun, from Earth’s perspective.
For example, you would not be able to see Mercury when it is directly in front of the Sun, but you can see it as it moves past the central point and around the side.
Mercury is currently at that point over the course of January 23 and 24, making it visible to Earthlings.
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How can I see Mercury tonight?
Despite its small size, Mercury will shine brightly tonight.
According to astronomers, the innermost planet will be as bright as a first magnitude star.
First magnitude stars are the brightest in the sky and include stars such as Sirius which is found in the constellation Canis Major.
To find Mercury, simply look due west 45 minutes after sunset, which is 4.34pm GMT in London.
Slightly above the horizon on the west you will see a bright star, which is the planet Mercury.
Mercury will be the lowest hanging ‘star’ in the sky while looking west and can be seen with the unaided eye.
However, a telescope will come in handy if you hope to gain a clearer look at the planet.
Be quick, though, as the planet will only linger in the sky for about 60 minutes before Earth’s rotation obscures the view.
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Earth Sky said: “At present, Mercury is nearly five times brighter than the nearby star Fomalhaut, a respectable 1st-magnitude star.
“Most likely, if you only see one starlike object near the sunset point on the horizon as dusk ebbs into darkness, it’s Mercury.”
Thankfully, January will treat most of us to rare clear skies this evening, according to the Met Office, meaning the planet should be easily visible.
The Met Office said: “Clear skies for many with a sharp frost and a few freezing fog patches.”
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