Heads UP! for May 2014

Also, the Westchester Astronomers’ newsletter has been published….

Go out and find Jupiter, a bit lower in the west, still a joy in telescopes, even as it gets a bit smaller. Even without a telescope, go out and get a wide-field photo of Jupiter and the twins as the Gemini stand up on the horizon! The Moon joins their dance line, bouncing on Pollux’ knee, on the 3rd and the 31st.

Mars also shrinks quickly as it moves away, but still attracts attention as the third brightest planet in the evening sky, after Jupiter and Mercury. Clouds over the Hellas desert look like a large polar cap in a telescope; the large contrast with the rest of the ruddy planet making Mars look a bit strange in a ‘scope. The northern polar cap is tipped toward us, but is very tiny since it is summer in the northern hemisphere on Mars. Asteroids Vesta and Ceres are lurking a just few degrees from Mars, with Ceres about to get a visit from the Dawn space probe next February. How long of a camera exposure do you need to get all except Dawn in the same photo? The Moon ‘photobombs’ the scene around the 10th.

Mercury starts out May as the second brightest planet in the evening sky. But it’s deep in the solar glare after hiding behind the Sun at superior conjunction.

It gets dimmer all month but easier to find by mid-May as it moves out from the Sun into the evening sky. It’s the best show for Mercury in our evening skies this year. Catch it before it fades away after the Memorial Day weekend. Use high magnification to watch its rapidly changing phases.

Saturn is closest to us for 2014 around the 10th. The ringed planet makes a splendid appearance in any reasonable optical device over 30 power. Saturn’s moons are a highlight all by themselves. Titan is in reach of smaller scopes. Rhea and Dione are noticeable much of the time in moderate scopes. Iapetus’ orbit is tilted more than the others, so it passes to the north of Saturn in early May. Even at magnitude +11 it is sometimes easier to find, away from the distracting bright rings. If you follow Iapetus’ progress this month, it will get dimmer as it revolves to Saturn’s east. That’s when we’ll see the darker side of the two-faced moon. Saturn’s rings often look brighter for a few days near opposition on the 10th. The Sun is behind us from Saturn’s point of view, so the tiny particles in Saturn’s ring reflect more light back toward its source, making the rings look brighter than usual. The Moon rings in with a very close pass on the 14th.

Venus must be very comfortable, settling in well to right of the rising Sun all through the summer months. In a telescope, our ‘evil twin’ planet looks smaller each week as it moves swiftly away from Earth, but will be 2/3 lit and getting fuller this month. These two factors will offset to keep Venus near a blazing-bright magnitude minus 4.0. You’ll need to find Venus in a bright sky to see the shape of the planet. Just don’t try when the Sun is up, since the Sun follows Venus and will burn out your eyes and your telescope. The Moon is nearby during the Memorial Day weekend.

We may have a new meteor shower this month. Set your alarm before 3am EDT on the 24th. Look overhead or in the darkest, least obstructed part of your sky to see the most meteors. Mathematicians calculated the debris trail from Comet 209P/LINEAR’s will be thick enough to produce a good meteor shower when the comet’s orbit intercepts the Earth’s orbit. Don’t be disappointed if you only see a few meteors; the ones you see are likely to be brighter and slower-moving than meteors you typically see. And there’s always the chance of a meteor storm! The comet itself is predicted to be 11th magnitude or fainter when it passes at a safe distance from Earth five days later.

Lovers of the Moon might want to view the Moon around the 19th, when it will be near perigee for the month. The heavily-cratered south polar region will be tipped a bit more than usual toward Earth. The rugged terrain has lots of details, and may be the site of a future Moon base, so no matter what size telescope you have, crank up the power and see for yourself!

Another comet discovered by the PanSTARRS sky survey – C/2012 K1 – will be a binocular object inside the handle of the Big Dipper in early May.

ISS sightings will resume in the morning sky after the 14th. In early June, as many as five passes a night can be seen.


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