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What's Up Above? May Stargazing

By “Astro” Mark Laurin


Can you hear the birds? They’re there.  A song, a chirp, a whistle.  Squirrels squirrelly chasing across branches and limbs.  Can you hear a buzz outside?  Green is in the air, and growth greets each new day.  Why would this not be the same for the night sky? Why would the Cosmos be any different?  It’s not. 

May opens “galaxy season.”  A season when the greatest number of galaxies are visible in the night sky; more so than any other time of the year.  A season when we gaze at these distant islands and take pause, and wonder.  A season of perspective, a chance to calibrate, to renew and grow.

Galaxy season is made possible by the Earth’s tilt and orbit around the Sun.  Our view of the universe is different.  Now, a matter of perspective.  This is because the Milky Way rides the western horizon low and tight.  Consequently, when we look up it’s through less comic dust and “fewer” stars.  Galaxies, nebulas, and star clusters in deep space and usually obscured, are now visible. 

While its galaxy season, much is afoot this month in our own solar system. Be alert though, the top celestial events in May highlighted herein all occur before May 10th. What’s happening? Two meteor showers, a farewell to Jupiter, a hello to Arcturus, and a pre-dawn diagonal alignment of the Moon and both inferior and superior planets.  This means you gotta start stargazing now. It’s May. Don’t wait, get out, look up, and experience a fabulous night or morning sky.    


Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower: Peak Showers May 5th – 6th 

Here’s another celestial event designed for all you early risers.  A meteor shower tailor made for you. This meteor shower is debris from Halley’s Comet, which separated from the comet hundreds of years ago. The current journey of Halley’s Comet doesn’t come close enough to Earth to create a shower. And there’s a bonus for you to get up and experience the Eta Aquarids meteor shower. The rate of meteors increases as the radiant point of the shower climbs in the sky as daybreak approaches.  Meteors at sunrise.     

From your location look to the southeastern horizon.  Shortly after 3am the showers’ radiant point rises above the horizon. While the radiant point is the general area where most of the meteors will appear; remember that comets can and will originate from all points, going in all directions.  Stay on your toes. You’ll have about three hours before sunrise and obscuring the show.  You can anticipate seeing ~40 meteors an hour.  Oh, and because you rose so early to see this show, when you look for the Eta Aquarids meteor shower, you might also see Eta’s meteor siblings like the Northern Iota Aquarids; and the Northern Delta Aquarids; and the Southern Iota Aquarids; or the Southern Delta Aquarids since they are generally all radiating from the same region of the sky. Whew! My hunch is if you get up early and take a peek southeast, you’re gonna see some meteors.


The Three Ms with Venus, Neptune, and Saturn: May 6th 

Jump out of bed early to see this diagonal alignment across the eastern sky 45 - 30 minutes before the dawn of a new day. This is another alignment you can view for only the briefest of moments. Score one for those early morning risers who have the advantage of the rest of us. Is getting up early worth it? You bet, as an early morning riser will tell you. Our alignment begins with the slight smile of a waning crescent Moon rising in the east. Visible just below the Moon and to the northeast is the brilliant planet Venus.  From where Venus graces the morning horizon, draw an imaginary line 45 degrees from the point where Venus touches the horizon up towards the southeast. The next brightest point of light on that line is the planet Mars. You’ll notice it has a dull rusty color. Continue on your imaginary line up in the same distance between Venus and Mars, and there you’ll see the planet Saturn.  It will be a dimer point of light, but you can see it with your naked eye. It will have a distinct muted green color to it.  Now from Saturn, reverse course and follow the line back towards the horizon. Between Saturn and Mars, is the planet Neptune. It’s dimmer than Saturn and you will need binoculars to see this light blue pinprick of light. Then, half the distance between Mars and Venus, is that speedster, planet Mercury. You are looking for a tiny dot of white. When you find it you’ll can’t miss it again as Mercury is a steady shine in the pre-dawn morning sky as most background stars are washed out.


Arrivederci to Jupiter: May 6th 

The King of the Sky has been watch over us for a few seasons. Truly, for the last nine months that bluish white dot of a spotlight in the night arced across the eastern, southern, and western skies is our friend, Jupiter.  The Greek god of the sky, and the king of the gods in ancient Roman mythologies.  More so, the deity Jupiter is the king of the gods for the Romans, and equivalent to Zeus, the head of the gods in Greek mythology. Jupiter, by any other name, is found in many cultural mythologies throughout history.  With all that said, it is sad to say the time has arrived for Jupiter to bids us a fond farewell as it reaches solar conjunction. What’s a solar conjunction?  For Jupiter this means the planet will pass especially close to the Sun as it continues its orbit around to the far side of our solar system away from Earth. At solar conjunction, the separation between the Sun and Jupiter is 0.43 degrees making it unobservable to us, lost in the Sun’s glare.  Hidden from us. Ye weary take heart, the god of sky returns later this year. So before we lose sight of our guardian, look west, and give thanks for Jupiter’s reflected guiding light.       


n-Lyrid Meteor Shower: Peak Showers May 8th  

The n-Lyrid meteor shower is active for a relatively short period of time from May 3rd through May 14th. During that period meteors shower should be visible from sunset till sunrise.  The shower’s radiant point is in the constellation Lyra and easy to find since that point rises in the northeast just west of its extra bright alpha star, Vega.  As the evening changes to night, the shower will rotate up and around the Celestial North Pole, eventually being over-powered by the light of a new day. When this happens the radiant point is directly overhead. At 5am on May 9th, the Earth’s rotation then points us in the optimal position towards the incoming meteors.  By then the shower reaches its maximum potential of 5 meteors per hour. Yet, rather than looking for meteors streaking across the sky, they will more often fall downward towards you. Unfortunately, the anticipated rate of meteors per hour this year n-Lyrid Meteor shower is a tad below average.


Ciao to Arcturus: May 9th  

Look to the northeast-east at sunset. There rising above the horizon and making a statement is the immediately noticeable star, Arcturus. You’re seeing a super massive orange-red supergiant star. And it’s big. Its estimated diameter is around 20 million miles while the Sun is 865,000 miles in diameter. Arcturus sits about 37 light-years away from Earth. That means it is estimated that the light we see today, when we look at Arcturus, left the star 40 years ago. Similar in mass to the Earth, Arcturus has swelled 25 times its size and making it approximately 170 times brighter. It’s one reason why Arcturus, is the 3rd brightest star in the night sky, and the brightest star in the northern hemisphere.

The rising and setting of Arcturus for the Koori people of southeastern Australia was life sustaining. They knew that Arcturus' appearance in the north signified the arrival of the wood ant larvae, a tremendous food source for the village. They knew summer arrived when Arcturus set, which coincided with the disappearance of the larvae.


The month of May shows us that we stand firmly in a new season.  A season of clarity and new beginnings. It is happening all around.  And we can look deep into the Cosmos, and when we do, be inspired, refreshed, and renewed.  Ready to begin. But what if you don’t have a telescope? Not to worry; celestial splendors await. Get up and get out early to look for alignments, meteor showers, stars arriving and planets departing.

In that spirit, if you own a telescope, get it out and go galaxy hunting. If you don’t own one, get your friend who owns one to get it out and take you galaxy hunting. When you look at these galaxies with your own eyes, you’re not going to see a Hubble-like image.  What you will see are thin, diffused, wisps, smudges, blobs, and when you look directly at them, they are dull. Then you blink your eye. There in a flash you glimpse the delicate details of a wispy distant island world, a galaxy off in the universe.  It’s a bit overwhelming. It may take your breath away. You may feel energized.  Do you think this is what all that May buzzing, chirping, and squirreling-about is all about? 


Clear skies to you!


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