Wonders of the night sky on full display




SaltWire Network


Down Memory Lane

Hi Sky Folks, Too many people look down at their own feet or straight ahead when they are outside walking. Even casually, it can be fun to look up at our sky, both during the day and at night. This month, I am going to concentrate on the night sky. In a future article, we will do the same thing with the daytime sky. Now let us subdivide our night sky by first, the seasons; secondly, by “just a glance” and finally for those who wish to look a little more carefully. It is for sure that in all the seasons, the one object most people can recognize is - the Big Dipper. Through the year it will be higher or lower in the sky, in different directions, and even rightside-up or upside down, but it is always there, at our latitude. Now at our latitude, another group of stars that is always there is the constellation Cassiopeia – the queen. To find it, draw an imaginary line from the inner star at the bottom of the Big Dipper pot through the halfway mark of a line joining the two top stars of the pot. Extend the line five times and you should run into a prominent shape that looks like a “W” or “M” depending on the time of the year. A third easy shape is what I call the ice cream cone. It is technically Bootes the Herdsman. To find it easily, go again to the Big Dipper. Look at the three stars of the handle. They form an arc. Extend this arc and you will come to a bright star called Arcturus. Now if you pretend that this star is the bottom of a cone of ice cream, you should be able to see a set of dimmer stars which show you both the cone and the scoop of ice cream in it. Wow. For our latitude, Arcturus and most of Bootes disappear below the horizon from early October to mid-February. So, it is seasonal. Ok, that is three quick “look ups”. I should however mention here that except for the sun and the moon, most things to see in the night sky can be hard to make out in bright city lights, but they absolutely pop out at you when you are in the dark. It is worthwhile to look at one other very easy, seasonal object. This is Orion, the Hunter, which, I call the hourglass, or if you prefer, a manual egg timer in case you don't know what an hourglass looks like. It will be visible from early November until mid-March at our latitude. For the best view, look from mid-December to mid-February, standing straight up in the southern sky. It is easy to see by finding three horizontal bright stars in a row – the “neck” of the hourglass. Now, let's try for one which requires a little more work but is still easily seen with the naked eye. This is the Pleiades which I call the “Tiny Dipper”. Go back to the three stars of the neck of the hourglass. Extend the line of these three to the right, and you should come upon an obvious “Y” with a bright star at the top left. Keep on extending this line through the “Y” and beyond. A short distance later, you should come upon my favourite “Tiny Dipper”. If you can locate it, it will be visible from late September to early February, but it may be difficult to find until Orion comes into view later. I should mention that all of the above are meant to be viewed around 10 pm. Finally, a little test. Go back to the three stars in the handle of the Big Dipper. Go to the middle star. Do you see one star or two close together? If your vision is good, you should see the two. Age can make a difference. If you can't, any binoculars will show them easily. These are often called “The Horse and Rider”. So, what is in our night sky this month? It is still, planet-wise, principally a morning show before sunrise, but we will come to that. Mercury starts May beautifully in the evening sky in the West-Northwest. Look particularly on May 1 to 2 because it descends swiftly, and by May 7, may be difficult to see. Mercury goes through inferior conjunction (passes between us and the sun) on May 21 and will reappear as a morning plant next month. Next in the evening sky, maybe we will see a comet – Panstarrs. Again, it is in early May. We have just discussed Mercury. As the sky darkens, we should be able to see the Pleiades (the Tiny Dipper discussed earlier) in the same field as Mercury and if the comet becomes visible, it will be right of Northwest of the Pleiades, but for a few nights only. Maybe the best on May 2. Now, perhaps most spectacularly, there will be a total Lunar Eclipse, on the evening of May 15. It is probably worthwhile to begin watching around 11:30 pm. The total eclipse will be from 12:30 after midnight to about 1:50 am ADT. To the morning sky. Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus, as in the past month continue to occupy the eastern sky. Look for Venus and Jupiter very close together early in May, especially May 1. They were closest on April 30. Then late in the month, May 29, Mars, and Jupiter do another very close approach. Full Moon - May 16 New Moon - May 30 That is, it. See you next month. Your Sky Guy, Dr. Rolly Chiasson