Highlights for the May Night Sky
Brought to you by: Bob Haskins @ Waterville Estates
Do your part and help preserve the dark skies that we are fortunate to have in Waterville
Estates. Turn off all unnecessary outdoor lighting.
After a long winter, step outdoors tonight and discover the treasures of the night sky.
The Planets: Evenings on the “Ecliptic” The Sun and the planets all follow an imaginary path
in the sky called the ecliptic.
Dusk and into the night:
Mercury & Venus: Our innermost planet Mercury takes center stage this month. Mercury is
usually a difficult planet to spot because when it is visible it is low on the horizon and is lost in
the glare of the setting Sun. However, May will be its best showing for 2021 and as a bonus it
will meet up with Venus on the 28th
. At the beginning of the month look WNW at dusk to spot
Mercury and with binoculars you might spot the Pleiades star cluster to its right.
By the middle of the month Mercury is higher in the west with Venus just above. At the end of
the month Mercury and Venus will be so close together in the WNW yo won’t be able to tell
them apart – this is known as a conjunction.
Mars: Look for our red planet high in the west at dusk.
Jupiter & Saturn can be spotted can be spotted high in the SSW one hour before sunrise.
New on the 11th
Full on the 26th
Stars and Constellations:
The area around WVE is starting to respond to the direct rays of our yellow star as the
Earth leans more into the Sun. The flowers are starting to poke there way through the soil and
we gaze in wonder as the Sun is bringing our planet back to life after a cold winter and the stars
of winter are slowly sinking in the west.
This month we are featuring the the “Big Dipper”. (see attached diagram below from
Chet Raymo’s book, 365 Starry Nights). Look north and you cannot miss it; however, you might
have to explain to the children what a dipper is. People in other parts of the world sometimes
refer to it as a plow. The Big Dipper is actually an asterism and not a constellation; it is actually
part of the constellation “The Great Bear”. An asterism is defined as a group of stars that are not
an official constellation. It is however, probably one of the most famous and familiar of all the
asterisms / constellations. No other group of stars, except possible for Orion, is easier to
recognize. If you follow the handle of the dipper it will point to the bright star “Arcturus” in the
east, which is also known as the “Spring Star”. As your vision travels a little further you will see
another bright star “Spica” in the south. Remember, “Follow the arc (handle) to Arcturus and
you will spy Spica”.
The two stars that make up the front side of the bowl or cup of the Big Dipper are called
the pointer stars (see diagram). If you follow them up they will guide you to Polaris, the North
Star (see diagram).
Thirty years ago the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into space on the back of
the space shuttle Discovery. Since then it has created a niche for itself in the hearts and minds
of all lovers of science. The HST has made many discoveries, among them the true age of the
universe and has taken many spectacular pictures. I have the picture of the Eagle Nebula’s
‘Pillars of Creation’ hanging on my wall as I write this article.
In 2021 the James Webb Telescope, the successor to the HST, will be launched into
space. The JWST will be 100X more powerful than the HST and is optimized for the infrared
wavelengths. This will allow it to see through the dust and gases of space to reveal the first
galaxies formed. It will also take beautiful pictures.
Comment / Factoid of the Month:
The scale used to describe brightness is called “apparent magnitude”. It was invented
by Hipparchus over 2000 years ago and has stood the test of time. The brightest stars he
referred to as first magnitude and the dimmer ones he called sixth magnitude. The scale has
been tweaked in recent times. Arcturus has a rating of 0 and Sirius a -1. The more minus the
number means the brighter the object is.
Astronomy Websites to explore:
• heavens-above.com (satellites that are passing overhead)
• skymaps.com (The evening sky map for the month)
• spotthestation.nasa.gov (sign up for alerts for the International Space Station passing