Facts About Mercury: All You Need to Know

~8 min

Mercury is very different from other planets in our Solar System. Today we’ll tell you more about its peculiarities and explain how they affect this little planet. Let’s get started!

Contents

Mercury Planet Facts

  • Planet type: terrestrial
  • Radius: 2440 km (1516 miles)
  • Mass: 3.3011×10^23 kg
  • Aphelion: 69.8 million km (43.4 million miles)
  • Perihelion: 46.0 million km (28.6 million miles)
  • Average distance from the Earth: 77 million km (48 million miles)
  • Surface temperature: -173°C to 427°C (−280 °F to 800 °F)
  • Solar day length: 176 Earth days
  • Sidereal day length: 59 Earth days
  • Year length: 88 Earth days
  • Age: 4.503 billion years
  • Named after: Roman god of commerce

How big is Mercury?

Mercury is the smallest planet in the Solar System in both mass and diameter. It’s 18 times less massive than the Earth, and its diameter barely reaches two-fifths of the Earth’s size. To give you a better understanding of Mercury’s size, let’s say that it’s only a third larger than the Moon.

Surprisingly enough, this small planet got even smaller over time. Cooling of its core has caused the entire planet to shrink, reducing Mercury’s volume by about 5-10 kilometers in radius.

How hot is Mercury?

The temperature of Mercury’s surface varies more than on any other planet in our Solar System. It can range from −173 °C (−280 °F) at night to 427 °C (800 °F) during the day. This happens because the smallest planet has almost no atmosphere to trap heat, and it quickly loses the energy received from the Sun during the daytime.

Although Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, it isn’t the hottest one (Venus is).

How long is a day on Mercury?

A solar day — the amount of time it takes the Sun to rise, set and rise to the same place again — on Mercury lasts about 176 Earth days. And here is another weird fact about Mercury: one year on this planet is twice shorter than a single day and takes 88 Earth days. How come?

The smallest planet spins slowly about its axis — one rotation takes 59 Earth days. However, its sunrises and sunsets are quite different from the Earth’s ones. Due to the planet’s eccentric orbit, the Sun appears to rise twice: once, shortly before setting, and then again from some parts of the surface. The same thing occurs in reverse at sunset. Thus it takes much longer for the Sun to appear in the same place again, and one solar day lasts almost twice as long as a year.

Even though it spins slowly, Mercury travels around the Sun faster than any other planet — at 47 km/s (29 mi/s). In comparison, the second-fastest planet in our Solar System, Venus, has a speed of 35 km/s (21 mi/s).

What is Mercury made of?

Since Mercury is a terrestrial planet, it’s mainly composed of iron, nickel, and silicate rock. It has a large iron core, which is about 61% of the planet’s volume (in comparison, the Earth’s core is only 16%), and a 400 kilometers (250 miles) thick outer shell. By the way, Mercury’s core is about the same size as our Moon. Another similarity with the Moon is that the planet’s dry and rocky surface is full of craters.

Craters are the results of impacts with asteroids or other space objects — the more craters a planet has, the older it is. Since Mercury’s surface is heavily cratered, it’s most likely ancient.

What is Mercury retrograde?

Mercury is said to be in retrograde when it appears to go “backward” for observers from the Earth. In reality, the planet doesn’t change its direction — this is only an optical illusion in the sky. You can read more about the phenomenon of retrograde motion in one of our recent articles.

The speedy little planet goes retrograde three or four times in a calendar year for about three weeks. In 2024, Mercury will be in retrograde from April 4 to April 24, from August 4 to August 27, and from November 25 to December 15.

When is Mercury visible in the night sky?

In 2024, Mercury will be visible in the morning sky from May 2 to May 23, from August 30 to September 19, and from December 18 to December 31. In the evening, look for the planet from March 10 to March 31, from July 8 to July 29, and then from November 2 to November 23.

Since the planet is very close to the Sun, there are not many opportunities during a year to observe it. The easiest way to find Mercury in the sky is to use the planetary guide Star Walk 2. Just type the name of a planet in the search field, and the app will show you its position in the sky.

Upcoming Events

Mercury is not easy to see. The planet often gets close to the Sun in the sky, so the sunlight outshines it. Learn when to see the elusive planet with the Sky Tonight app. Tap the magnifier icon in the lower part of the main screen, enter the planet’s name in the search field, and choose the corresponding result. Then, go to the Events tab and see the list of all Mercury-related astronomical events. A quick tip: the planet is best visible at greatest elongation when its apparent distance from the Sun is the largest.

July 18: Mercury at dichotomy

On July 18, at 22:45 GMT (6:45 p.m. EDT), Mercury will reach its half phase called dichotomy. The event occurs once every 2 months and falls around the time of the planet’s greatest elongation. Mercury will shine brightly with a magnitude of 0.4 in the constellation Leo. You can spot the planet in the evening sky: to the naked eye, it will look like a point of light, and optical devices will resolve a half-lit disc.

July 22: Mercury at greatest elongation

On July 22, at 06:59 GMT (2:59 a.m. EDT), Mercury (mag 0.4) will appear farthest from the Sun in the sky: the apparent distance between the two bodies will be 26°54'. The event is called greatest elongation; it is the best time to observe Mercury, as most of the time, Mercury is near the Sun and, therefore, hard to see. Find Mercury after sunset in the constellation Leo.

July 27: Mercury at aphelion

On July 27, at 15:44 GMT (11:44 a.m. EDT), Mercury will reach its farthest point from the Sun in its orbit. The distance between the two objects in space will be 0.47 AU. To compare, at perihelion (closest point to the Sun), the distance between these two objects is about 0.3 AU. The difference makes up more than 50%, meaning Mercury gets half as much energy from the Sun at aphelion than it does at perihelion. However, it doesn’t affect Mercury’s appearance in the sky: you will not notice much difference even if you look through a telescope.

August 6: Mercury near the Moon

  • Close approach time: 23:24 GMT (7:54 p.m. EDT)
  • Close approach distance: 1°34'
  • Conjunction time: 22:04 GMT (6:04 p.m. EDT)
  • Conjunction distance: 1°54'

On August 6, the 4%-illuminated Moon and Mercury (mag 1.9) will meet in the constellation Leo. The planet will be visible after sunset without any optical aid.

August 7: Mercury-Venus

On August 7, at 17:23 GMT (1:23 p.m. ET), Mercury (mag 1.8) will pass 5°42' from Venus (mag -3.8). Venus will be in the constellation Leo, while Mercury will be on the border of Leo and the small constellation Sextans. Because the planets will be close to the Sun, they will be difficult to observe. You can try to see them in the evening, low in the west.

September 5: Mercury at greatest western elongation

On September 5, at 01:59 GMT, Mercury (mag -0.4) will appear farthest from the Sun in the sky: the apparent distance between the two bodies will be 18°6'. Find Mercury before sunrise in the constellation Leo.

November 16: Mercury at greatest eastern elongation

On November 16, at 07:59 GMT, Mercury (mag -0.3) will appear farthest from the Sun in the sky: the apparent distance between the two bodies will be 22°30'. Find Mercury after sunset in the constellation Ophiuchus.

December 25: Mercury at greatest western elongation

On December 25, at 01:59 GMT, Mercury (mag -0.4) will appear farthest from the Sun in the sky: the apparent distance between the two bodies will be 22°30'. Find Mercury before sunrise in the constellation Ophiuchus.

F.A.Q.

What color is Mercury?

Mercury is primarily dark gray. A planet’s color depends on the color of its surface and its reflective abilities. Unfortunately, Mercury’s rocky exterior covered with dust doesn’t give a wide variety of colors.

How many moons does Mercury have?

None. Without going into details, Mercury just cannot form, capture, or acquire a moon due to the planet’s small size, weak gravity, and proximity to the Sun.

How far is Mercury from the Sun?

Its average distance from the Sun is about 58 million km (36 million miles). Thus, among other planets in the Solar System, Mercury is the closest one to the star.

When was Mercury discovered?

We don’t know for sure — the first recorded observation was made in 265 BC. Because Mercury is so close to the Sun, it’s often hidden by its glare. The first people who observed Mercury through a telescope were Galileo Galilei and Thomas Harriot in the 17th century.

Why is Venus hotter than Mercury?

Despite Mercury being the closest planet to the Sun, Venus is hotter because of the thick Venusian atmosphere trapping heat. Mercury, in its turn, has no significant atmosphere and can’t hold the Sun’s energy.

What does the Sun look like from Mercury?

If you could stand on Mercury, at aphelion (the farthest Mercury can get from the Sun), you would see the Sun twice bigger than it appears from the Earth. At perihelion (the closest distance), the Sun would appear three times larger than it does from our planet.

Did you know?

  • There are no seasons on Mercury because its axis has almost no tilt (only 2 degrees).
  • Ancient astronomers believed Mercury was two different objects because it can appear in the evening western sky or rise in the morning eastern sky. By the way, they thought the same about Venus.
  • Like the Moon and Venus, Mercury has phases, but you can see those only through a telescope.
  • Mercury is almost certainly not habitable. Its rough temperatures and closeness to the Sun make the planet too extreme for living organisms.
  • Mercury has a tail. Many people know comets have tails. But have you heard about a planet that has one? Mercury has a cometlike tail produced by the solar wind that pushes sodium atoms off the planet’s surface. It’s not easy to see: you’ll have to take a long-exposure photo using a telescope and a special filter.
  • In Sanskrit, Mercury is called Budha (not to be confused with Buddha, the founder of Buddhism). The Vedic texts call it Budh planet and refer to it as a deity, the son of Soma (or Chandra, the Moon god) and Tara (wife of Bṛhaspati, the god of Jupiter).

Mercury is, without a doubt, one of the most extreme planets of all, and now you know why. Share this article with your friends and keep learning more about astronomy with Star Walk 2. You can also watch the fun and educational cartoon about Mercury that explains the main facts about the planet in simple words.

Wishing you clear skies and happy observations!

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