(ORDO NEWS) — Each planet in the solar system has two types of motion – direct and retrograde. Astrology is not a science. But “Mercury retrograde” is a real phenomenon that creates a visible reverse motion of the planet.
Chances are you’ve heard of Mercury retrograde more than once, and it’s usually said with a sigh. Someone’s had a lousy day. Or this someone is in a bad mood. Or in general, everything goes wrong, despite a lot of efforts. Many people put the blame for what is happening on Mercury – the smallest planet in our solar system, which is closest to the Sun. It’s all Mercury’s fault. It’s retrograde, after all. Mercury is in retrograde right now.
The idea that the planets can influence people’s lives is the main tenet of astrology, which tries to find meaning and predict the future based on the positions of the planets that have been orbiting us for thousands of years. The belief that Mercury can have some kind of negative impact on our lives is a fairly new phenomenon that emerged in the 1980s, according to Harper’s Bazaar magazine. And this story has taken on a modern meme shape only in the last decade, including thanks to Taylor Swift, who in her 2014 video complained about the astrological chaos arranged by this planet.
Astrology is not a science. But “Mercury retrograde” is a real phenomenon, best explained by people who, like astrologers, sometimes think about this planet, but unlike the same astrologers, do not tend to blame her for having lost their keys to the house. It’s about planetary science. The expression “Mercury in retrograde” does not mean at all that something strange is happening with the orbit of this planet. It’s just about how we see it move in the sky – the movement of a tiny white dot in the twilight hours after sunset until dawn, as David Rothery, a planetary scientist at the Open University in England, explains. Most of the time, Mercury moves relative to the stars in the night sky from west to east. But several times a year, the nature of this movement changes, and Mercury seems to begin to move from east to west.
This phenomenon is explained by the relative position of Mercury and the Earth, revolving around the Sun. Compared to the Earth, Mercury rotates closer to the Sun, that is, this planet orbits the star much faster – it does this in 88 days, while the Earth takes 365 days. This causes Mercury to “pass” the Earth from time to time, as if “overtaking us on an internal treadmill,” as Rothery explained to me. And when that happens, that tiny white dot in the sky seems to change direction and move in the opposite direction night after night. In the end, the Earth catches up with Mercury, and the latter seems to change the direction of movement again, becoming “direct”. This happens three to four times a year and lasts approximately three weeks.
Thus, although “Mercury retrograde” is a real phenomenon, it is only an optical illusion. It only becomes so because we observe it from Earth. The same optical illusion will arise if you observe some other celestial body from the surface of Mercury itself. “There are times when the Sun also moves backwards when viewed from the surface of Mercury,” Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, told me. Blimey!
When it seems to us that Mercury has begun to move in the opposite direction, the planet itself at this time just calmly moves along its usual path around the sun. If Mercury really stopped and started moving in the opposite direction, we would be faced with much more serious problems than missed emails or missed trains, which astronomers like to warn about. And, of course, Mercury has no effect on people’s daily lives. Just like any other planet. That is why I feel an irrational desire to speak in defense of Mercury, which is often blamed for all possible troubles.
Mercury is one of those planets in our solar system that is undeservedly overlooked. All rovers go to Mars. Jupiter boasts a mass of glossy photographs. Venus has been at the very center of the controversy about the possible existence of aliens. Even Uranus has been getting a lot of attention lately. Mercury has no moons or rings. Even Pluto has rings! What happens to Mercury? Complaints and eye-rolls from people who, as Jo Livingstone wrote in Harper’s Bazaar, “perhaps know more about Mercury as an astrological phenomenon than as a physical planet.” To paraphrase Taylor Swift, I think Mercury would rather be left out of this story.
“So far, the only effect that Mercury has on events on Earth is that most of the time that Mercury is “in retrograde”, it is so close to the Sun that radio communication with a spacecraft on Mercury can be interfered with due to impact on the signal,” Rothery said. According to him, “I don’t pay attention to all this astrological nonsense”, and those who do should just look for Mercury in the night sky or look at photographs of this planet taken during space missions, because they demonstrate “how beautiful our world”. Mercury has more craters than any other planet in the solar system. And it shrinks—slowly, over billions of years—in the process, its crust cracks and crumbles.
Mercury retrograde may affect Cabo’s mood, but not for the reasons astronomers point out. Whenever Cabo sees headlines about Mercury being a threat, she checks to see if the picture of the planet was taken by NASA’s Messenger spacecraft, which orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015. “Because Mercury goes into retrograde several times a year, I constantly see pictures of the planet in the newspapers, which makes me happy,” said Cabo, who worked on the mission’s team. And she gets upset whenever photos taken by NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft are used in astrology posts. That mission, which began back in the 1970s, managed to capture less than half of Mercury’s surface. Meanwhile, thanks to “Messenger”.
The Messenger mission ended when the spacecraft ran out of fuel to keep it in orbit and crashed on the surface of Mercury. The newest Mercury mission, a mission led by the European Space Agency and Japan’s JAXA space agency, launched from Earth in 2018. The spacecraft is still on its way, and before it reaches its destination, it must make several flybys around Venus and Mercury. The BepiColombo spacecraft, named after the Italian mathematician who calculated flight paths around Mercury in the 20th century, will orbit the planet at the end of 2025.
By the end of next week, Mercury will again “change direction” in the sky and exit the retrograde. At the end of June, the BepiColombo apparatus will make its next flight around this planet – at a distance of only 200 kilometers from its surface. And he will try to take amazing pictures of the world pitted with craters and cracks and slandered by astrologers. BepiColombo will not find an explanation for why your day is going so poorly. Because the answer to this question must be sought in your own life.
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