Monday January 25th the innermost planet Mercury ends its retrograde motion and resumes its eastward or direct motion as it orbits the Sun.
All planets revolve around the Sun in the same direction which as we view from the Earth is toward the east. Planets have orbits that are tilted or inclined from nearly parallel with the Earth’s orbit (plane of the ecliptic), to about 7o above or below. This is known as inclination. Since the orbits are inclined from the Earth’s orbit there will be a highest and lowest separation or distance above and below the Earth’s orbit. There will be two places, (nodes), where the planet orbit intersects or crosses the Earth’s orbit. One is going down, (the descending node), and the opposite going up, (the ascending node). I post regularly during each month about our Moon’s node crossings.
In addition when the Earth’s orbital speed is compared to an outer planet there will be a time period when the faster moving Earth passes the outer planet. This sets up a temporary illusion where it appears as if the outer planet has reversed direction and is now moving backward toward the west, or in retrograde motion.
On the other hand the two inner planets, Mercury and Venus, also revolve around the sun toward the east and go through a period of retrograde motion. However theirs is not as a result of the Earth’s faster orbital speed but rather it is their faster orbital speed compared with the Earth’s that gives them their retrograde motion. And unlike the apparent retrograde motion for an outer planet, Mercury and Venus do actually move in retrograde motion as this animated graphic is showing.
The size for Mercury is exaggerated and the animation is set to a 1-day interval. It is showing Mercury moving westward as venus is moving eastward. As Mercury moves along its orbit it eventually curves around and starts moving toward the east. This may be close to the day when Mercury reaches its furthest separation from the Sun on the west or right side of the Sun. That point is known as Greatest Western Elongation and is on February 7th. The counterpoint to this is when Mercury, or Venus, reaches their respective Greatest Eastern Elongation on the left or east side of the Sun.
Click here to go to the Qué tal in the Current Skies web site for more observing information for this month.