Jupiter Reigns Supreme in May Evening Skies
I'm so happy that Jupiter is so bright and beautiful in the night skies this month because honestly, May is not one of my favorite months for stargazing. While you can stargaze in a lot more comfort, you also have to wait until late to get started with the much later sunsets. Along with that my favorites, the great winter constellations, have pretty much left our evening celestial dome. There are a few hold outs like Gemini the Twins and Auriga the Chariot Driver turned goat farmer still hanging in the western sky after evening twilight. The rest of them, Orion and his gang of bright shiners, have already taken their summer vacation from our evening skies and wonít be returning until late autumn. Thatís because the nighttime side of the Earth is turning toward a different direction in space as our planet orbits the sun.
By far the best celestial gem in the evening sky this month is Jupiter. It pops out in the low southeastern sky during evening twilight and is out pretty much all night, setting in the southwest a little before morning twilight. Itís by far the brightest star-like object in the night this spring and will be most of this summer. In early April it was the closest it's been to Earth in three years, but this month it's just about as close. This week it's about 423 million miles away. Believe or not that's considered close for Jupiter. It's so bright in our sky because it's so big, with a diameter of 88,000 miles. It's by far the largest planet in our solar system. Our Earth's diameter is just over 8,000 miles.
Through even a small telescope you can resolve the disk of the planet. You might even see some of Jupiterís cloud bands that stripe the planet. For sure youíll see up to four of Jupiterís brightest moons that appear as tiny ďstarsĒ on either side of Jupiter. If you stay up late the best time to view Jupiter through a telescope is after 11:00. After that it will be high enough in the sky to minimize the blurring effect of Earth's atmosphere closer to the horizon.
The next brightest star-like object in the sky is actually a star just to the upper left of Jupiter in the east-southeast sky. It's Arcturus, the second brightest star we can see in the night sky through the course of the year. It's also the brightest star in the constellation Bootes that resembles a giant sideways kite with Arcturus at the tail. According to Greek mythology Bootes is supposed to be a farmer hunting down Ursa Major, the Big Bear.
Speaking of which - 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 isn't officially a complete constellation, but the rear end and the tail of Ursa Major, the Big Bear. It's certainly the brightest part of the Big Bear. The Big Dipper is always upside down in the evening this time of year, and according to old American folklore thatís why we have so much rain in the spring, and of course, mostly on the weekends!
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.
This week we have a first quarter moon (half moon) in the evening sky. The full moon this month is a week from this Wednesday night. It's a wonderful sight, but it does get in the way of good stargazing. Actually the last half of May will be best for stargazing, with the moon pretty much out of the evening sky.
Later on this summer we have a fantastic celestial happening. On August 21st we'll have a total eclipse from coast to coast in a narrow strip that runs from Oregon to South Carolina. I've seen a total solar eclipse back in 1979 and believe me, if you have a chance to travel and see it do so! I guarantee it will be worth it! Around here it will be a deep partial eclipse with much of the sun's disk being covered by the moon. You need to wear specialized eclipse glasses to watch any partial eclipse. It's not safe staring at the sun without them. You could do great harm to your eyes. Safety first!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and is author of the book, ďStars, a Month by Month Tour of the ConstellationsĒ published by Adventure Publications. Available at bookstores and online at www.adventurepublications.net.
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something youíre seeing in the night sky drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org