May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Events for Sky Watchers (Mostly mornings), May 2011

Posted: Sunday, May 1st, 2011

with a Look Ahead at Sky Events in School Year 2011-2012

by Robert C. Victor

Our May evening sky map at www.pa.msu.edu/abrams/SkyCalendar shows three of the four brightest stars visible from mid-northern latitudes. All within a few hundredths of a magnitude of mag. 0.0, they are Arcturus, Vega, and Capella. But notice the striking differences in their colors! Spica and Pollux, also contrasting in color, are noticeably fainter, near mag. +1.0. A complete list of all ten objects of magnitude 1.5 or brighter in May skies appears in the caption of that map. For a discussion of each star’s legends, physical characteristics and more, visit James Kaler’s The 152 Brightest Stars Through Magnitude 2.90, at http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/bright.html

If you look early in the evening in the first part of May, you can still catch the “Dog Star” Sirius (the brightest star at mag. –1.5), Aldebaran, eye of Taurus, and possibly Rigel, the foot of Orion. These stars set too early to appear on the May sky map, but you can use the April map, linked from last month’s sky article in California Classroom Science.

The solitary evening planet is Saturn, in SE to S at dusk, halfway to overhead by month’s end. At mag. +0.5 to +0.7 in Virgo, Saturn outshines +1.0-mag. Spica 13°-14° to its lower left. Watch Saturn close in on the 3rd-mag. star Gamma Virginis until the second week of June, when planet and star will appear just one-quarter of a degree apart. A telescope shows the planet’s rings tipped 7.8° to 7.3° from edge-on, with their north face visible. A high-power eyepiece in steady seeing conditions reveals Gamma Virginis to be a very close binary star, current separation only 1.7 arcseconds. When Saturn gets back around to this part of the sky again in 2039-40, Gamma’s components will an easy five arcseconds apart.

The moon, in the evening sky, leapfrogs past Aldebaran low in bright twilight May 4-5, and then passes widely south of Pollux and Castor, the Gemini Twins, on May 8. After passing widely south of Regulus, heart of Leo, on May 10-11, the moon goes widely S of Saturn on May 13 and more narrowly S of Spica on May 14. Finally, just past Full, the moon passes closely north of Antares on the night of May 17-18. All these events are depicted on the May Sky Calendar.

Planets at dawn: Venus rises about one hour before sunup from lat. 40° N; at mid-twilight (when Sun is 9° below horizon) it’s about 2° up in E to ENE. Bright Venus (mag. –3.8) helps locate three other planets nearby. Drawings showing Venus-Mercury-Jupiter-Mars for every morning of the month appear on the May Sky Calendar. They depict the view for observers at lat. 34° N, where the gathering rises in a darker sky and climbs higher in morning twilight than from northern U.S. (Farther south is even better.) For all locations, binoculars are recommended for fully enjoying what can be seen of May’s clusters of planets low in bright morning twilight. After your planet viewing, stay outdoors to enjoy the spring dawn chorus of birds!

For May 2011:

  • Follow these two trios (three planets within a 5° field):
  1. Mercury-Venus-Jupiter during May 7-15
  2. Mercury-Venus-Mars during May 15-25

(Both trios will share a close Mercury-Venus pair on May 15.) Mercury has its poorest apparition of this year for northerners: although 27° W of Sun on May 7, it rises in bright twilight.

  • On May 1, find Mercury at mag. +0.8 and about 3° lower left of Venus.
  • During May 6-20, Mercury brightens through zero mag. and lingers within 1.5° of Venus, with least separations of 1.4° on May 8 and 18.
  • On May 11, Venus and Mercury pass 0.6° S and 2.1° S (lower right) of Jupiter, making the trio Me-Ve-Ju tightest, just 2.1° across.
  • From May 11 onward, Jupiter, rising over 3 minutes earlier daily, is the highest member of the four-planet gathering Ju-Ve-Me-Ma.
  • Faint Mars (mag. +1.3), after passing just 0.4° N (upper left) of Jupiter on May 1, is lowest member of foursome until mid-May, when Mercury drops lower.
  • A spectacular quartet, Venus within a triangle of fainter planets, fits into a field just over 6° across on May 12.
  • Watch the faster planets overtake Mars: On May 21, Mercury passes 2.1° S of Mars, making the trio Me-Ve-Ma tightest, 2.1° across; and on May 23, Venus goes 1.0° S of Mars.
  • A waning crescent moon appears near the morning planets on Apr. 30 and May 1, and again on May 29-31.

In Palm Springs, we’re planning to set up public viewing sessions for most mornings, May 10-23, starting about an hour before sunrise. From our vantage point, the planets will rise over a distant mountain ridge on the far side of the valley extending no more than 2 degrees above the ideal horizon. On May 10, the three brightest planets, Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury, will appear above the ridge, in that order, all within a 6-minute interval, and fainter Mars will follow just 7 minutes later. On May 16, Jupiter will rise first, followed within 15-16 minutes by Venus, and then by both Mars and Mercury between five and six minutes later.

Using binoculars, I spotted Jupiter in bright twilight 13 degrees lower left of Venus this morning (April 28), for the first time since Jupiter’s solar conjunction on Apr. 6. As Mercury brightens, and Mars and Jupiter (and Mercury until mid-May) climb a little higher each morning, I am looking forward to May’s dawn planetary rendezvous.

The school year 2011-2012 will bring some planetary gatherings in the evening sky, well placed at a convenient time for observation, and mostly unencumbered by bright twilight. The two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, will be simultaneously visible evenings from late October 2011 until late April 2012, and will form a brilliant pair high in the western sky at dusk in March. The three bright outer planets, Jupiter (in October 2011), Mars (in early March 2012), and Saturn (in mid-April 2012) reach peak brightness and all-night visibility, and remain visible evenings for several months thereafter. Two distinct sets of four naked-eye planets will take turns on the evening celestial stage for simultaneous visibility, in late winter and early spring. Venus’ crescent phase will be easily detected through binoculars and telescopes afternoons and around sunset in April and May 2012. A major solar eclipse will be visible in western U.S. before sunset on May 20, followed by a transit of Venus across the face of the Sun for all of North America and Hawaii on the afternoon of June 5. It will be a great year to get students involved in direct observation of sky phenomena!

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

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

One Response

  1. ADDENDUM: For early risers in the Palm Springs area, we have arranged five public skywatching sessions for viewing the compact gathering of morning planets, on May 10-12, 15, and 21. Details are available at the web link below. If you can’t join us any of those mornings, you (and your students) can get up early anyway, and have looks for yourselves. The views on May 10-12 will be especially striking!

    http://astrorx.org/may_planets_2011.htm

    Robert Victor

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