May 13

What’s Up in the Sky

Scientific Literacy Still Important
One of the reasons I write this column is to promote an understanding of science in general and astronomy in particular.  Many wonder why I consider this goal to be so important.  Well, I recently heard an interview with David Morrison, NASA space scientist and main author of NASA’s web page, “Ask the Astrobiologist”.
Currently there is much hubbub on the internet involving the predicted December, 2012, Earth-ending collision with Nibiru, aka “planet X” as supposedly predicted  by the Mayan calendar.  Dr. Morrison stated that he gets 5 to 10 emails a day asking about this and at least once a week he hears from people, usually eleven or twelve years old, who say they are contemplating suicide because of these predictions.  He was also contacted by a young mother planning to kill her children to spare them the agony of the earth being destroyed.
This is extremely disturbing.  It drives home the fact that vast numbers of people are grossly uninformed when it comes to science.  This leads to the inability to distinguish bogus claims from real science, which in turn affects our decisions ranging from monetary to global.
What is based on real science, however, is knowing where and when to look for things in the sky.  Three planets remain easily visible this month, Venus, Saturn, and Mars.  Venus reaches its maximum brightness early in May, when it is still well above the western horizon at dusk.  Mars can be found in the southern sky below the constellation Leo and to the left of the star Regulus.  Both are above the Moon on May 1.  Further east is Saturn, just to the left of the equally bright star, Spica.  Look for them above the Moon on May 4.  Speaking of brightness, Venus actually shines 100 times brighter than Saturn although our eye-brain system perceives the difference to be much less.  There are also a number of bright stars visible.  In fact, nine are as bright or brighter than Regulus.
Finally, look for the Big Dipper.  Face north and you may be surprised to see it almost overhead and upside down.  So, even though there won’t be a lot of tulips, May should be a good month to enjoy what’s up in the sky.


This month in history:
May 5: Alan Shepard becomes first American in space – 1961
May 6: Neil Armstrong ejects safely before Lunar Landing Research Vehicle crashes – 1968
May 14: Skylab is launched – 1973
May 18: Hubble Space Telescope serviced for the 23rd (and last)time – 2009
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
This month’s question is: what was the first spacecraft to successfully land on the surface of Mars?

Post your answer in the comments!