Still stars to see in May sky

Posted: Sunday, May 09, 2004

The nights for astronomy viewing are getting much shorter these days from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. at the beginning of the month with twilight reducing the time by an additional hour and from 11 p.m. until 5 a.m. at month's end with twilight present pretty much the entire night. It never gets really dark because even at midnight, the sun is seven degrees below the northern horizon, so that sunlight is lightening our atmosphere.

In early May, you can find Saturn, Mars and Venus clustered low in the west and northwest between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. Jupiter appears all night low from the south to the west. Late in the month we can only find Jupiter low in the west after midnight, joined by the moon May 27, while the sun has crouched in on the other three planets. Actually, if you can find the crescent moon low in the northwest around midnight on May 21, try for the three planets as well when they're clustered around it.

Venus poses a nice sight earlier in the month if you have a telescope. You will be able to make out its crescent shape that takes its form due to its proximity to the sun and geometrical relationship with us.

Late in the month and throughout the summer, only the brightest stars will stand out: Spica and reddish Arcturus in the southwest forming a large right triangle with Regulus and Jupiter in the west, Capella low in the north and the summer triangle consisting of Vega, Deneb and Altair starts dominate the sky in the southeast.

It will be tougher to make out any constellations besides the Big Dipper. By the way, Capella in the north tells us we're living so far north because around here its circumpolar meaning it never sets while in the Lower 48 it's gone in April and will emerge in the fall again.

As described in the May issues of Astronomy and Sky and Telescope magazines, both of which are available in our public libraries, at Fred Meyer and on the Internet, two comets can be seen with the naked eye this month. But I refer you to these publications for more information, since I don't want to describe something in detail that unfortunately will be hard to see from Alaska and even from down south because they're close to the horizon near the winter constellations of Canis Major and Orion. I thought I'd mention it, though.

Tjimgs to look forward to: Hang on for the Venus transit June 7 and 8 when Alaska becomes the only place in the United States to see this twice-in-a-lifetime event although it's mostly visible from north of Fairbanks, it will be partially visible from the Kenai. Also, we'll be in for a double treat in October with a partial solar eclipse and a total lunar eclipse two weeks later.

Andy Veh is the physics and astronomy instructor at Kenai Peninsula College. He can be reached at aveh@uaa.

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