May 04

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – May, 2014

We May Have Showers After Flowers

“April showers bring May flowers” is an old saying that most of us in Holland hope will ring true for Tulip Time. But this year I am hoping for a May shower of a different kind. In fact many astronomers are hoping it will be a storm . . . of meteors.

Most of us are familiar with meteor showers like the Perseids or Leonids, where we sit outside for several hours well into the night and watch for “shooting stars”. If we are able to spot a couple of dozen, it was a good night. But this month we may be in for a real treat.

As many of you know, a meteor shower occurs when the Earth passes through the trail of debris left by a comet after a close encounter with a planet (in this case, Jupiter) or the Sun. Particles ranging in size from dust to small pebbles are released during each passage and continue to follow the comet’s path. The same gravitational forces responsible for the disturbance also tend to”herd” the debris into clumps or streams that continue to orbit the Sun. Next month it is possible that these past dust trails may pile up on one another thus increasing the number of meteors visible.

At this point I must warn you that there are no guarantees in meteor astronomy and estimates range from less than 100 to over 400 meteors per hour. Experts are very cautious with their predictions and often add disclaimers like “rates might be much lower” and “I would not bet on a meteor storm”.

On the positive side, several favorable factors will increase the chance of a good show. There will be no bright Moon to interfere, and the meteors will be unusually slow-moving and are likely to be very bright. And there may be more than one peak of activity, but you will have to be watching between 3-4 a.m. on Saturday, May 24. Hey, just stay up really late Friday night. It’s a long weekend.

If that is too early (or late, as the case may be), the very next morning, Sunday, May 25, look toward the eastern horizon one hour before sunrise for a spectacular pairing of the crescent Moon and Venus. There is no doubt you will be able to see this as long as the weather cooperates.
So, whether high or low, there are good things to see this month up in the sky.

This month in history:
May 5: Alan Shepard becomes first American in space – 1961
May 11: Launch of first geostationary weather satellite – 1974
May 14: Skylab is launched – 1973
May 20: Pioneer-Venus 1 launched – 1978
May 29: First experimental test of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity performed during total solar eclipse – 1919