There has been a story circulating on the internet claiming that tonight, May 16, 2020 will feature a rare astronomical phenomenon called an occultation involving Venus, Jupiter and a crescent Moon. It’s supposed to be an alignment or “conjunction” of these celestial objects that would appear to us earth dwellers as a smiley face in the night sky. The story, which is believed to have originated in the Philippines, was picked up and posted on BBC Radio Tees Twitter account on March 30th. The story claims the same occurrence happened in 2008 but experts say it did not and such an event would not be defined as an occultation.
In fact, according to experts, Venus, Jupiter, and the moon will be at different parts of the night sky on May 16, making it impossible to see a smiley face in the sky. Jamie Carter, a senior contributor to Forbes Media who is an experienced journalist on science, technology, and travel, called it "fake news." He also said that the event did not happen in 2008, as claimed. The story seemed to have started from a news outlet in the Philippines back in 2010, about a very common occurrence of Moon passing through Venus. (See the article)
As cool as it might have been to see the moons and the planets literally smiling down at us, stargazers need not be disappointed. May 22nd will bring a delightful opportunity to see Mercury thanks to a pair up with Venus just after dusk, passing within one degree of each-other. Venus is the third brightest celestial body and the ticket to catching a glimpse of Mercury with just your eye. Watch for Venus to appear about a half hour after sunset and within another 45 minutes or so (if it ever stops raining!) you should be able to spot a small red dot just beneath. This will be the easiest time all year to view the smallest planet in our solar system and first rock from the sun!
Some fun facts to remember while checking out Mercury
One solar day on Mercury’s surface is the equivalent of 176 Earth days but a year on Mercury takes 88 Earth days. This is because Mercury races around the sun faster than any other planet, traveling around 112,000 mph along its elliptical orbit. The petite little planet is only about 3,000 miles in diameter, just slightly larger than our moon and about the size of the continental U.S.
Mercury only has almost no atmosphere and only 38 percent of Earth’s gravity. Your weight on the surface would only be 38 percent of your weight on Earth, which is a win if you ever had to live there. But only two spacecraft have ever visited Mercury due to its inhospitable closest neighbor. In 1974 and 1975 Mariner 10 few by Mercury three times and mapped part of the planet’s surface. In 2004 the MESSENGER probe was launched from Cape Canaveral and completed its first flyby in 2008. The craft entered orbit around Mercury in 2011 and remained so until it ran out of fuel and crashed onto the planet on April 30, 2015. It was a sad day for the mission team, and they mourned its passing on Twitter.
Despite its proximity to the sun Mercury is only the second hottest planet. In fact, its surface can get pretty cold at night, as low as minus 275 degrees and scientists believe that there is even ice inside the planets numerous craters. But it does warm up nicely during the day with temperatures reaching 840 degrees. Think about that the next time you complain about weather!