May 01

May 2007

What’s Up in the Sky May, 2007

Life In The Universe

I recently conducted two astronomy programs for the public, one for school children in Fennville and the other last Saturday in downtown Holland for National Astronomy Day. In each instance, one of the first questions to come up was, “Are there aliens?”. I think people are usually surprised to hear that although UFOs and alien abductions remain in the realm of science fiction, many astronomers hold the belief that life is common, if not abundant, in the universe.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, we see various life forms thriving in the most inhospitable places right here on Earth, such as hot sulfur pools, frozen rocky mountaintops and dark ocean floors. Second, there is abundant evidence for the existence of life supporting ecosystems elsewhere in our own solar system, from ancient rivers and lake beds on Mars to a liquid water ocean on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. Third, the number of stars in the universe is enormous, more than all the grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth, and we know that many stars have planets orbiting them. It seems rather unlikely that this is the only place where life arose.

Taking this thought even further, in 1961 astronomer Frank Drake developed an equation that allows us to estimate the number of advanced technological civilizations in our galaxy – technological being defined as one capable of radio astronomy. By multiplying the number of stars in the galaxy by several factors the number can be estimated (reference The Drake Equation).

In fact, it is believed that we are much more likely to receive a radio message from an alien civilization than we are to have them visit us. You can even help in the search for a signal with your home computer. Go to http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/ for more info.

Whenever this topic comes up I’m reminded of the movie “Contact” where Jodi Foster tells the kids that the universe is so vast that if we’re it, it seems like an awful waste of space.

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 launched – 1973
May 25: President Kennedy gives speech challenging nation to land astronaut on Moon before the end of the decade – 1961
May 29: First experimental test of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity performed during total solar eclipse – 1919

Here are this month’s viewing highlights:

Planets this month: Venus continues to dominate the western sky at dusk. Mercury becomes visible by mid month. Look for it next to very thin crescent moon near WNW horizon at 9:30 p.m. on the 17th. Jupiter shines brightly in the southern predawn sky. Saturn lies just west of Regulus in Leo.

May 2: Full Moon.
May 9: Venus close to star cluster M35 in Gemini.
May 10: Last-quarter Moon
May 16: New Moon.
May 19: Look for Venus very close to crescent Moon.
May 23: First quarter Moon.
May 31: Full Moon (the second full moon of the month is sometimes called a Blue Moon).

Peter Burkey – SAAA Member-At-Large