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Hal Kibbey
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Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2008

STAR TRAK

Mercury makes its best evening appearance in May

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 1, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- If you've never seen the smallest planet, May will offer an especially good opportunity as Mercury makes its best evening appearance of the year. During the second and third weeks of the month, find a location with a clear view to the west-northwest about an hour after sunset and pick out the brightest "star" near the horizon. The pinpoint of white light will be easier to see as the sky darkens. To its left (west) will be the bright orange star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus the Bull. Mercury will fade rapidly after midmonth, becoming too faint to observe during the final week.

Mars will be fairly high in the west at dusk. On May 22 and 23, the orange planet will pass through the Beehive cluster, making close approaches to several of the bright stars in this group. Binoculars will show the whole spectacle as it unfolds.

Saturn will be high in the southwest at dusk. Keeping it company will be the constellation Leo the Lion, including Leo's brightest star, Regulus, a short distance to the right (west) of the planet. Saturn's biggest and brightest moon, Titan, will be north of the planet on May 12 and 28, and south of it on May 4 and 20.

Jupiter will rise well after midnight in May. Unfortunately, its position low in the south will make the view through a telescope less enjoyable for observers in the Northern Hemisphere.

Venus will be out of sight in the solar glare during May.

Meteor shower

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 before dawn on May 5 and remain active through May 12. The meteors will appear to come from a point called the radiant in the constellation Aquarius, which will rise in the east about two hours before the start of morning twilight. The higher this point is above the horizon, the more meteors will be visible. The moon will be new on May 5, making viewing conditions ideal in a clear sky. In the Northern Hemisphere, the Eta Aquarid radiant will be low in the east-southeast at 4 a.m. local time. The radiant will be three times higher in the Southern Hemisphere. Observers may see anywhere from 30 to 70 meteors per hour.

More information about the Eta Aquarid shower and other major meteor showers of 2008 is available at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/meteors/12362121.html.

Hubble Space Telescope

To celebrate the 18th anniversary of the launching of the Hubble Space Telescope, on April 24 a collection of 59 Hubble images was released showing galaxies colliding or otherwise interacting in spectacular ways. The images can be viewed at http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/html/heic0810ab.html.

A collision of galaxies might seem apocalyptic, but it can't be too bad or we wouldn't be here. Our Milky Way galaxy contains many remnants of small galaxies that collided with and merged into ours. Creatures living on a planet in a colliding galaxy would notice few effects other than a really interesting night sky, because most of the individual stars involved would be too far apart even to disrupt each others' planetary systems.

Moon phases

The moon will be new on May 5, at first quarter on May 11, full on May 19 and at third quarter on May 27.