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Sky Report - May 2013

Big Dipper Highest, Spring Groups at Their Best, Planet Trio in Late May

May is the month when the Big Dipper appears upside down high in the North as the sky turns dark in the early evening.   As you face North, the four stars of the scoop are on the left. The left most stars of the scoop point downward to the North Star. The three stars of the handle form an arc that can be extended outward to a bright golden star, Arcturus. This is spring evening’s brightest star.  Below Arcturus are two bright points, the planet Saturn on the left and the star Spica on the right. You will notice that Saturn shines steadily while white-blue Spica twinkles. To the right of Spica is a compact group of four stars, whose top two stars point to Spica (just as the edge stars of the Big Dipper point to the North Star).

A few bright summer evening stars can’t wait to show themselves, shining low in the Northeast and Southeast.
A sparkling white-blue star visible in the Northeast is Vega, that will take over the title of the evening’s brightest
star once Arcturus drops below the Northwestern horizon in the fall.  There is a pinkish star low in the Southeast that will get your attention. This is Antares (‘rival of Mars’), a red supergiant sun.  Antares is close to the ecliptic (the sun’s apparent path) so it will often be visited by other planets. When Mars passes by Antares, the star and the planet will have nearly the same color.

The best spring groups shine in the South. Return to the Big Dipper’s handle and extend its arc to Arcturus. This golden star is part of a kite shaped group named Bootes, the Bear Driver. The bears are the Big and Little Bears of ancient Greek myths. The Big Dipper forms the tail and hind quarters of the Big Bear. The Little Dipper is a Little Bear with the handle as Little Bear’s long tail with the Little Dipper’s scoop as the Little Bear’s body. Both bears have long tails because they were swung by their tails and hurled into the sky. In doing so, both bears had their tails stretched. Between Arcturus and Vega is the star group Hercules. Hercules’s brighter stars form a ‘butterfly’, made of six stars.

If you follow the arc past Arcturus and go deep into the southern sky, you come to the bright white-blue star Spica.
Spica and the other bright stars of Virgo form a tilted letter ‘Y’ in the sky. To the right of Virgo is Leo, the Lion. Well up in the Southwest is the ‘sickle’ of Leo, a star pattern with a lower handle and above a curve of stars.  At the bottom of the handle is the bright star Regulus, marking the heart of Leo.   To the left of the ‘sickle’ is a triangle of stars that represents the Lion’s back end.

In late May, there will be a trio of planets seen very low in the Northwest. Look about 9:15 p.m. from a place with a very flat horizon. Venus is the brilliant point of light, Jupiter a bit dimmer and then Mercury, still dimmer. Of the trio, Mercury is the closest to Earth at a distance a little over 100 million miles.  Venus is nearly 160 million miles out. The giant planet Jupiter is about 550 million miles away from the Earth. There will be another dusk planet trio in October
but the planets will be farther apart.
Early May will have the moon in the morning sky. The half full moon (3rd Quarter) will be seen in  the southern dawn on May 2.

Mid May will see the moon back in the evening sky. The half full moon (1st Quarter) offers good views of the moon’s craters and mountain ranges.

Late May has a full moon on the evening of May 24. As we approach summer, the full moons are in the same part of the zodiac as the sun in late fall.  Full moons are in the opposite direction as the sun.  So the full moons at this time of year have a low sky path, reaching only one third of the way up in the South in the middle of the night.

Our science presentations on the first three Sundays in May are about grazing animals across the world. These talks will be held in the Science Discovery Center in the Compton building at 4 p.m. After a brief talk, visitors may go on a tour of the Discovery Center which includes many fine grazing animals from Africa.

By Dr. Bob Doyle

To contact Dr. Doyle, his mailing address is Planetarium, Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD 21532 or by email at rdoyle@frostburg.edu.









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