May 03

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – May, 2013

Looking for something really cool to observe, something you’ve never seen before that you  can now show the kids?  This could be your month.  And I am not talking about the rings of Saturn or craters on the Moon, both of which can be easily observed these days.  No, this month you should be able to witness a gathering of planets that will be spectacular, although it will take some effort and a pair of binoculars.

You probably have seen Jupiter this spring in the southwestern sky after sunset.  Around Memorial Day it will be joined by Venus and Mercury, the three forming a compact triangle about as wide as three fingers held at arm’s length.  Now, before you get too excited, I must also tell you that they will all be very low after sunset and you will not only  need a clear view of the western horizon, but also a pair of binoculars (not a telescope).  I guarantee, however, that your reward will be well worth the effort.

Start early.  Find Jupiter.  Locate a convenient site with a clear view to the west.  On Saturday, May 11, locate the thin crescent Moon just below Jupiter.  If that didn’t work, try again on Sunday when the Moon will be just to the left or the planet.  If Jupiter were the center of a clock, look where the 5 would be.  You should see Venus. (If you see anything it will be these planets.  You do not have to worry about trying to pick them out of a Hubble-like field of stars.)

Now, keep watching.  Each clear evening, take a look.  Notice how gradually Venus and Jupiter get closer together and are joined by Mercury around mid-month (when will you first spot it?).  By Memorial Day weekend, you should know just what to look for as well as where and when to look.  It will be especially interesting to note the drastic changes in the configuration during the last week.

Of course, this raises the question: what would the ancients have thought of this, the King and Queen of the gods in a close encounter with the swift messenger, Mercury, passing close by?  Back then the most important things were up in the sky.

This month in history:
May 5:    Alan Shepard becomes first American in space – 1961
May 10:    M2-F2 lifting body crash lands: footage later becomes opening scene of “The Six Million Dollar Man” – 1967
May 12:    First planetarium in Western Hemisphere, Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, opens – 1930
May 20:    IKAROS, the first space craft to successfully use solar-sail propulsion, is launched – 2010
May 25:    President Kennedy gives speech challenging nation to land astronaut on Moon before the end of the decade – 1961