September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Celestial Highlights for May and June 2016

Posted: Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Planet rising and setting graphs by Jeffrey L. Hunt

Make necessary preparations to safely observe the transit of Mercury across the Sun on May 9. Jupiter is brightest “star” in evening sky this spring until Mars offers serious competition in late May, as the Red Planet presents its brightest and closest approach since 2005. Mars-Saturn-Antares triangle expands in size and rises earlier in evening as weeks pass. Moon-Jupiter pair up on May 14, and a “Blue Moon” and Red Mars at its brightest, team up on May 21. Provide your students chances in May and June to get close-up telescopic views of all three bright outer planets!

On our chart depicting the sky at evening mid-twilight in May, we find two bright stars, Rigel south of west, and Aldebaran in WNW, leaving the scene early in the month – they may have already departed by the date you receive this. The brightest star, Sirius, the Dog Star, is the next to go, in the WSW. Then all that will remain of the Winter Hexagon will be the “Spring Arch” of Procyon, Pollux (with Castor 4.5 degrees to its right, not shown), and Capella. Orion’s shoulder Betelgeuse, sheltered under the Arch, drops out by late May, soon after Sirius.

On the chart, bright Jupiter follows Regulus across the sky’s vertical north-south-overhead line – the meridian (Sun’s midday line) – crossing it high in the south. Golden Arcturus climbs high in the east, while blue-white Spica is in SE, climbing toward the south. In the SE, Mars first appears in evening mid-twilight around midmonth – and competes with Jupiter in brilliance — while Saturn and Antares follow about a week later. But you can see Mars, Saturn, and Antares earlier in May, simply by observing later in the evening, or before dawn.

Off in the northeast in May’s evening twilight, bright blue-white Vega appears, followed by fainter Deneb. Altair, south point of the Summer Triangle, first graces our evening twilight scene in June.

For illustrations of the following sky events in May, you are encouraged to download and reprint the free May 2016 Sky Calendar and evening sky map available at www.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar/.

A graph of the rising and setting times of the planets for southern California may be found here.

May 6: New Moon 12:30 p.m. PDT.

May 7: At dusk, look for first young Moon, age 31-32 hours, very low in WNW. Aldebaran, eye of Taurus the Bull, just to upper left, beautiful in binoculars! On May 8, Moon will be higher, to upper left of Aldebaran.

May 9: Transit of Mercury visible in California from sunrise until 11:42 a.m. PDT. For details and links on how to observe the event safely, see article in April California Classroom Science < link >.

May 10, 11: From one evening to the next, Moon leaps over the line joining Pollux and Procyon.

May 13: Moon, just past First Quarter phase (half full and 90° from the Sun) in afternoon and evening sky. Whenever the Moon is close to half full in a blue daytime sky, you can install a single polarizing filter in your telescope’s low-power eyepiece and then rotate the eyepiece to darken the sky, improving contrast of Moon against sky. This evening, note Regulus, heart of Leo, above the Moon.

May 14: Using binoculars a few minutes before sunset, can you spot Jupiter not far upper left of the Moon? This evening, you can’t miss it! Saturday, May 14 is ASTRONOMY DAY. Visit https://www.astroleague.org/al/astroday/astrodayform.html to find a club, planetarium, or observatory and participate in their activities.

May 15-21: This week, Mars, going west 1/3 of a degree per day against background stars, passes closely N of Delta, brightest and middle star of three in the head of Scorpius. Two hours after sunset, Mars is the brilliant reddish object low in SE. Use binoculars, and you’ll notice Mars’ changing position with respect to Delta Sco from one evening to the next

May 17, 18: The bright star near the Moon is Spica, in Virgo.

May 21: The Full “Blue Moon” and red Mars hang out together from dusk until dawn. In spring 2016, we have four Full Moons: On Mar. 23, Apr. 21, May 21, and Jun. 20. The third Full Moon of four within the same astronomical season is called a “Blue Moon”:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_moon

So tonight’s Full Moon, the third of four this spring, is a “Blue Moon”.

May 21: Mars at opposition. Tonight, as Earth overtakes Mars, we observe the red planet all night long, from dusk to dawn, in the direction opposite to the Sun. Today’s Full “Blue Moon” rises in ESE around sunset, with Mars quickly becoming visible 6°-7° to Moon’s right. Within two hours after sunset, below Moon and Mars, look for Saturn with the twinkling red first-magnitude star Antares, “Rival of Mars”, about 7.5° to Saturn’s right. For the rest of the night, these four bright objects form a striking quadrilateral, in clockwise order, Moon, Mars, Antares, Saturn. The two planets lie at the ends of the longer diagonal. Best viewing time lasts from about two hours after sunset on Sat. May 21, until 1.5 hours before sunrise on Sun. May 22. Also that night, for skywatchers in California, Syrtis Major, the most prominent of the dark markings on Mars, lies near the center of the Martian disk as the planet reaches its highest position in the southern sky, when viewing is best. For more on observing surface features of Mars, see the April issue of California Classroom Science.

If you’re inclined to observe the predawn sky at this time of year, despite the very early sunrises, you’ll find the triangle of Mars, Saturn, and Antares sinking into the southwest, Arcturus in W to WNW, the Summer Triangle of Vega, Altair, and Deneb overhead, Fomalhaut low in SE, and, by June, Capella rising in far NE. In early June, Mercury reaches the peak altitude of an unfavorable morning apparition very low in ENE . Follow the Moon in the morning sky during May 22-June 3, and on the last day binoculars will show a thin old crescent Moon tucked just below Mercury half an hour before sunrise.

On the night of June 2, Earth passes between Sun and Saturn, and the ringed planet appears at opposition. An hour after sunset, find Saturn low in SE to lower left of Mars and upper left of Antares. Earth has now overtaken all three bright outer planets within three months, an event which hasn’t occurred since 1984. It’ll happen again in 2018, from May through July!) Now all three bright outer planets will adorn the sky at dusk until Jupiter sinks into the western twilight glow near the end of August 2016.

New Moon occurs on June 4 at 8:00 p.m. PDT. By the evening of June 6, the nearly 2-day-old crescent will be easy to spot low in WNW in twilight. Follow the waxing Moon. On June 7, it’s to lower left of the Twins, Pollux and Castor. Very low in W to Moon’s lower left, can you still spot Procyon, the Little Dog star? During June 9-11, watch the Moon march past Regulus and Jupiter. By June 11, the Moon has nearly reached First Quarter phase.

On June 14 the waxing gibbous Moon is near Spica in Virgo. During June 16-18, the Moon hops past Mars, Antares, and Saturn. By now the gap between Mars and Saturn has widened to 18°, with Mars having retrograded well to the west of the head of Scorpius. The Moon is Full overnight on June 19-20, actually at 4:02 a.m. PDT on the morning of June 20. Summer begins 11.5 hours later that day, with the solstice at 3:34 p.m.

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs.

Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts and the planet orbit charts, did graduate work in Planetarium Science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt, a retired planetarium director now living in the Chicago area, has taught astronomy and sky watching to all ages.  He studied astronomy education at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. Jeff writes an astronomy blog at jeffreylhunt.wordpress.com and can be followed on Twitter at @jeff_hunt.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

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