It's Now the Late Show For May Stargazing!
Stargazing on these nights has for the most part lost its chill, but honestly it's also lost some of its thrill. The winter constellations, overall the brightest of the year, are about to go on a summer vacation from our evening skies and won't be returning until late autumn. That's because the nighttime side of the Earth is turning toward a different direction in space as our world endlessly orbits the Sun. In early May, Orion the Hunter and all of his gang of bright stars and constellations along with the planet Jupiter start out very low in the evening in the western sky. By the end of the month, all of the great stars of winter have sunk below the horizon by the time it finally gets dark enough to stargaze, and by the end of May that's about 10pm. Stargazing is now officially a late night affair!
By far the best celestial gem in the evening sky this month is still the planet Jupiter, starting out high in the low southern sky after evening twilight. It's the brightest star-like object in the evening sky right now. Jupiter is about 450 million miles away, but even at that distance with a small telescope you can see up to four of its brightest moons as they patiently orbit the big planet. You may even see some of its brighter cloud bands. Jupiter's background constellation is still Leo the Lion, one of the brighter star patterns in the sky. Look for the backward question mark that outlines the chest and head of the great lion. The moderately bright star at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus, more than 77 light years away, with one light year equaling just less than six trillion miles.
If you face north and look overhead this month the Big Dipper will appear to be dumping out on top of you. The Big Dipper is always upside down in the evening this time of year. According to old American folklore, that's why we have so much rain in the spring, and of course, mostly on the weekends. Technically the Big Dipper is the rear end and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear, but it is the brightest part of the great beast. Since Ursa Major is nearly overhead right now, this is a great time to see the fainter stars that make up the rest of that constellation. See my website, lynchandthestars.com, for details.
Elsewhere in the northern sky is the Little Dipper, lying on its handle, with the North Star Polaris at the end of the handle. Cassiopeia the Queen, the one that looks like the big W, is very low in the northwestern sky.
In the high eastern sky look for the brightest star you can see, Arcturus, which is also the brightest shiner in the constellation Bootes the Farmer. Bootes actually looks like a giant nocturnal kite with Arcturus at the tail of the kite. According to Greek mythology, Bootes the Farmer is hunting down Ursa Major, the Big Bear. The pursuit will go on until mid-autumn.
If you wait until the midnight hour you can watch the planets Mars and Saturn rise fairly close together above the southeast horizon. Mars is by far the brighter of the two, sporting a very distinctive red-orange glow. It's so bright because this month it's the closest it's been to Earth since 2005! Right now Mars is about 53 million miles away, but by the end of the month it will be less than 47 million miles away. We're setting up for a Martian Summer! Stay tuned!
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something you're seeing in the night sky drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org