Last modified: Monday, May 1, 2006
Jupiter is the king of the night sky in May
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 1, 2006
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Our solar system's two largest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, will be on display in the evening throughout May.
Jupiter will reach opposition (on the opposite side of Earth from the sun) on May 4, when it will rise in the east-southeast as the sun sets. The best time to view Jupiter with a telescope will be around midnight local time when the giant planet will be highest above the southern horizon, minimizing interference from Earth's atmosphere. Moving along a straight line passing through Jupiter's equator are its four bright moons that Galileo discovered with one of the first telescopes: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. The moons are visible with binoculars, each moon appearing to be a bright "star" next to Jupiter, and you can see them change position from hour to hour as they revolve around the planet.
Saturn and Mars will appear fairly close together in the west as darkness falls on May evenings. Saturn will be by far the brighter of the two, since Mars is now on the far side of the solar system from us. Bright yellow Saturn and its rings will still be a fine sight in any telescope, and the planet will be visible until early morning all month. Saturn and Mars will be joined on the right (west) by the bright white stars Pollux and Castor of the constellation Gemini the Twins.
Mars will be a faint orange dot during May, even in a telescope. Mars will draw closer to Saturn as the month advances.
Venus will appear above the eastern horizon around the beginning of morning twilight during May, and it won't get much higher than that before sunrise. You won't need any optical aids to spot this brilliant white "morning star" low in the east, but you will need a clear view in that direction.
Mercury will begin May by appearing briefly above the eastern horizon as the morning sky brightens. Then it will rapidly sink out of sight and pass behind the sun. Late in the month it will reappear low in the west about 45 minutes after sunset.
Comet breaking apart
Recent images from the Hubble Space Telescope showing the break-up of a comet's nucleus can be seen at http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/Comet_73P.html. Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 will be passing Earth in May as it approaches the point nearest the sun in its orbit. Astronomers have been observing this comet for more than 75 years, and its path around the sun is well known.
The comet's nucleus has broken into more than 40 fragments. None of the pieces will come closer than 5.5 million miles to Earth during the comet's closest approaches May 12-28. Neither the main comet nor any of its pieces poses a danger to Earth.
The main fragment will pass closest to Earth on May 12 at a distance of 7.3 million miles. It will be visible in small telescopes during the hours before morning twilight in the constellation Vulpecula.
This month Earth will encounter a stream of dust left behind in space by Comet Halley, causing the Eta Aquarid meteor shower that will peak on the night of May 4-5. The moon will be at first quarter, so fainter meteors may be difficult to spot.
This shower is active for three or four days before and after its peak, beginning after midnight local time, but most of the activity will happen an hour or two before dawn for observers in North America. Many of the meteors skim through the top of the atmosphere, producing long paths. In a clear, dark sky there should be about 20 meteors per hour, most of them high overhead. They will appear to come from a point in the constellation Aquarius, which will rise in the east after midnight. The higher Aquarius is above the horizon, the more meteors there will be.
More information about the Eta Aquarid shower and other major meteor showers of 2006 is available at http://skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/meteors/article_588_1.asp.
The moon will be at first quarter on May 5, full on May 13, at third quarter on May 20 and new on May 27.