Astro Mark's Astro Alert: What’s Up Above? May Stargazing
By “Astro” Mark Laurin
Can you hear the birds? They’re there. A song, a chirp, a whistle. Squirrels squirrelly chasing across branches, limbs, and trunks. Can you hear the buzz outside? Green is in the air, and growth greets each new day. Why would this not be the same for the night sky? Why would the Cosmos be any different? It’s not.
May holds us in “galaxy season.” A season when the greatest number of galaxies are visible in the night sky; more so than any other time of the year. A season when we gaze at these distant islands and take pause, and wonder. A season of perspective, a chance to calibrate. Renewal. Growth.
The galaxy season is made possible by the Earth’s tilt and orbit around the Sun. Our view of the universe is different. Now, a matter of perspective. This is because the Milky Way rides the western horizon low and tight. Consequently, when we look up it’s through less comic dust and “fewer” stars. Galaxies, nebulas, stars, and star clusters in deep space usually obscured, are now visible.
Here are five must-see celestial events for the month of May that you can view with your naked-eyes. Get out, look up, and experience the universe.
Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower, Peak Showers May 5th – 6th
This is for all you early risers. Here’s a meteor shower tailor made for you. Plus, an unusual bonus twist for you because you get up so early. This meteor shower is debris from Halley’s Comet, which separated from the comet hundreds of years ago. The current journey of Haley’s Comet doesn’t come close enough to Earth to create a shower. Unlike other meteor showers, the Eta Aquarids are more even, occurring over a week's period before and after the 6th. Oh, and what’s the bonus? The rate of meteors climbs with the rising radiant point as daybreak approaches. Meteors at sunrise.
From your location look directly to the cardinal point east. Shortly after 3am the showers’ radiant point rises above the horizon. While the radiant point is the general area where most of the meteors will appear; remember that comets can and will originate from all points, going in all directions. Stay on your toes. You’ll have about three hours before sunrise and obscuring the show. You can anticipate seeing ~50 meteors an hour.
Arcturus Rising, May 5th
Look to the east at sunset this month and rising above the eastern horizon is an immediately noticeable bright star, Arcturus. You’re looking at a super massive orange-red supergiant star. And it’s big. Its estimated diameter is around 20 million miles while the Sun is 865,000 miles in diameter. Arcturus sits about 37 light-years away from Earth. That means it is estimated that the light we see today, when we look at Arcturus, left the star 40 years ago. Similar in mass to the Earth, Arcturus has swelled 25 times its size and approximately 170 times brighter. One of the reasons why is Arcturus, is the 3rd brightest star in the night sky, as well as the brightest star in the northern hemisphere.
The rising and setting of Arcturus for the Koori people of southeastern Australia was life sustaining. They knew that Arcturus' appearance in the north signified the arrival of the wood ant larvae, a tremendous food source for the village. They knew summer arrived when Arcturus set and it coincided with the disappearance of the larvae.
Shine on You Crazy Diamond. Venus Reaches Her Majestic Peak May 9th
From the time our ancestors looked up and wondered to this very day, Venus holds remarkable importance. As a significant predominant celestial body in the night sky, it is only fitting and proper that we celebrate Venus reaching its highest point in the northern hemisphere. For an inferior planet (Mercury or Venus) to reach an altitude of 38 degrees north, is certainly a rare and a special event. The influence of Venus is recorded in history, culture, literature, mythology, and astrology. The Greeks believe Venus to be two separate stars, an evening star, and a morning star. On this date in May, Venus will shine brilliantly in the western sky glimmering at a magnitude of -4.1. (A negative magnitude number means it's a really bright object. The Sun’s magnitude is -26.) Venus will be so luminous that I guarantee some will confuse the planet with the landing lights of an airplane. You’ll probably find Venus with your eyes closed, that’s how bright it is. On the 9th, look to the west at sunset, and you can’t miss it. Even better, Venus the goddess of love, fertility, prosperity, and victory is staying up and out till midnight. Must be a celebration.
The Lion Jumps Over The Moon, May 27th
Hey diddle diddle, the cat, and the fiddle, the lion jumped over the Moon? Isn’t that correct? Maybe not, but on May 27th it is. Ascribed in the 2nd century, the constellation Leo is one of first of the 48 constellations ascribed by Ptolemy.
To find the constellation Leo, face the southwest around two hours after sunset and look half way up from the horizon to the point directly over your head. The constellation Leo is easy to identify in the sky with its bright stars and crouching lion shape. Better yet, the mane and shoulder of the lion create the shape (asterism) of a forward facing sickle. The brightest star is the lion’s elbow. It is the blue-white Regulus. To the east of Regulus is Denebola, “the lion’s tail” and then to the north of Regulus, is the third brightest star in the constellation, a golden-yellow colored gas giant, Algieba, which means “the forehead.” Between Regulus and Denebola resides the Moon. That night, the Moon is a waxing gibbous that is 9 days old. The creative types will see what appears to be Leo approaching the Moon on the 25th, jumping over the Moon on the 27th, and then clearing the Moon on the 28th and 29th. Certainly Leo gives a new look to the familiar nursery rhyme.
There’s a Mars in the Beehive’s Bonnet, May 30th – June 2nd
As May draws to a close, Mars, always a mischievous planet, gets into a bit of dust up with the celestial bees by taking up temporary residence in the middle of their hive. This will get things a buzzing! The Beehive Cluster, also referred to as M44, resides near the center of the constellation Cancer. It is a huge, gorgeous, and beautifully bejeweled open star cluster you can easily see with your naked-eye. Look for a somewhat oval fuzzy patch or smudge of pin pricks of light. On that night the fading yet still visibly red planet Mars is right in the thick of things. Eating honey, I assume.
To find this fracas, go back to the location of the constellation Leo discussed above, and look to the west of Regulus, towards the western horizon. The constellation Cancer resembles an upside down capital “Y.” At the junction of the Y’s arms and trunk, is the Beehive Cluster, with Mars, and its distinct red color, standing out with the cluster’s field of blue and white stars in the background. Don’t miss this one. It’s a stunning juxtaposition made all the more spectacular when seen through binoculars.
The month of May shows us that we stand firmly in a new season of the year. A season transition, renewal, and new beginnings is happening all around. In May we can look deep into the Cosmos, and when we do, we will be inspired, refreshed, and renewed.
In that spirit, if you own a telescope, get it out and go galaxy hunting. If you don’t own one, get your friend who owns one to get it out and take you galaxy hunting. When you look at these galaxies with your own eyes, you’re not going to see a Hubble-like image. What you will see are thin, diffused, wisps, smudges, blobs, and when you look directly at them, they are dull. Suddenly, your eye blinks and in a flash you glimpse the delicate details of a wispy distant island world, a galaxy in the cosmos. A bit of a shock takes your breath and you feel energized. Do you think this is what all that May buzzing, chirping, and squirreling-about is all about?
Clear skies to you!