Chasing Mercury after sunset

Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was arguably one of the greatest astronomers ever, writes Ian Griffin. 

In 1543, he published his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, which transformed our understanding of the cosmos. In one fell swoop, Copernicus revolutionised astronomy by placing the sun, rather than the Earth, at the centre of the Universe.

Of course, now, thanks to centuries of research, we know the sun isn’t the centre of the Universe. Still, despite this tiny misunderstanding, it is undeniable that Copernicus was, by any measure, a revered polymath of the highest order.

What would you say if I told you that this week, once the sun has set and, of course, weather permitting, you can see something that Nicolaus Copernicus never actually saw for himself? I’m talking about the planet Mercury.

Believe it or not, despite the lack of light pollution in 1500’s Poland, and despite his using observations of the motions of the planets to change our view of the Universe, Copernicus complained on his deathbed that he had never actually seen the planet Mercury thanks to the frequent fogs of the river Vistula.

We are so lucky in the southern hemisphere. We have the best skies in the world. Speaking as someone born "oop North", there is no finer sight than the Milky Way high overhead at midnight in winter.

But there are other reasons we are lucky. Fogs are relatively rare in coastal Otago (other than at Momona, the foggiest airport in New Zealand!), and we can observe stars and planets very close to the horizon. And thanks to a quirk of nature, Mercury at its best is visible far higher above the horizon in our part of the world than in the Northern Hemisphere.

So this week, why not head out after sunset and try to spot Mercury? The innermost planet will be almost five degrees above the southwestern horizon an hour after sunset. Look for a bright pinky-white star to the right of the descending sting of Scorpius, the scorpion.

See it, and you instantly get one-up on one of the world’s greatest astronomers…