MAY 2006 SKYWATCH
by Maya del Mar
Jupiter, King of the gods, rules the May skies. We can see this bright planet the whole night long. It rises in the southeast at sunset, and sets in the west at dawn. At midnight it is high in the southern sky. With binoculars we can sometimes see its four moons, easier to spot later in the night when Jupiter has risen out of the Earth haze. Above Jupiter is the blue star, Spica, in Virgo. On May 11-12, the Full Moon lies below it.
Golden Saturn, on the other hand, is in the process of setting shortly after sunset. Mars, now dimming, is to the right of Saturn, catching up with it. Mars crosses Pollux and Castor during May. And early in May, and again more spectacularly on May 31, the early waxing moon joins Mars and Saturn. Look at the western sky about an hour after sunset to see this spectacular trio. Below Saturn, close to the horizon, is the bright star Procyon.
Look for Venus early in the morning, shortly before sunrise. Although Venus is normally very bright, its light may be dimmed now by its closeness to the horizon. It is still in that assertive position of Venus as Morning Star. On May 24, a waning crescent moon passes very close to Venus, and it will be very beautiful.
Interesting. We get to see Moon with Mars in the evening, and with Venus in the morning. And here we are in May, Venus month. That position may emphasize the importance of money and resources now. They are both associated with Venus.
Neptune and Uranus also rise in the southeast, a few hours before Venus. Supposedly they can both be seen now with binoculars, but I would guess that much patience would be essential. Neptune rises first. It is a blue-gray color, and it does not look like a star. Uranus is close to 2 stars, and looks like a double star. Try 4 a.m. for Neptune, and 5 a.m. to view Uranus. Uranus will be about 25 degrees above the horizon at that time.
Mercury, true to form, makes a brief appearance in the morning and another one in the evening. It can be seen on May 28 in the evening, very close to the western horizon, just below the very delicate new crescent moon.
The morning sky is a treasure chest this month. In the May 5 predawn sky, we have the peak of a luscious meteor shower, the Eta Aquarid Meteors. Look in tbe east-southeast sky about 4 a.m., close to the horizon. Above the radiant is the bright bluish-white star, Altair.
This is one of two annual meteor showers from Halleys Comet. The other one occurs in October. The dark sky now helps with viewing Eta, which actually has more meteors.
The most exciting news of all is that we might see a comet, or even two, in early May. In the early morning, in the same vicinity as the meteor radiant, we may see a fuzzball climbing higher as the month moves on. This is Comet C/2004 B1, climbing above Neptune and Uranus.
The other comet, 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, may be much brighter, or it may not. Astronomers expect it to be bright enough to view from a city park with the naked eye. The sky must be dark, so avoiding moonlight is a challenge. That means waiting for the moon to set, which is around midnight on May 1, and 2 a.m. on May 4.
This comet was discovered in 1930, but for the most part was far from earth and sun, and not much to see. Beginning in 1995, 73P has been breaking up. It has been brighter since, probably due to a larger volume of deliquescing ice, which reflects sunlight. This year it could sport a halo which is twice as large as the apparent diameter of the moon. It could flash up at any time, and be very bright.
This year it comes by far the closest to Earth, and it could be very bright. Or not.
We can see Comet 73P heading toward the V-like constellation of Lyra, near the very bright bluish star, Vega, Best for viewing is to head for the dark countryside early in the morning, with your binoculars, when the sky is moonless. As best as I can tell, 73P will be moving across the high sky during the late night and early morning hours.
On May 1 it is in the constellation of Hercules, heading right towards the Great Summer Triangle. It passes close to big blue Vega about May 8, and between the other two bright stars of the triangle, Altair and Deneb, on May 11. However, for the week around Full Moon, it will be difficult to see. From May 16-May 23, it will be passing near the Great Square of Pegasus.
Because Comet 73P is so close to earth during May, we could get a good view of any developing tail. Viewing 73P could be a real treat, and its worth making an effort to catch a dark sky.
Its interesting that the blue stars are prominent this month. Blue is a Venus color.
Our warmer weather makes night viewing much more comfortable than it has been. This would be a good month to sleep outdoors all month, and enjoy the heavenly panorama!