Warmer stargazing

Evening stargazing has lost its chill, but honestly, also a little of its thrill. The bright winter constellations continue their gradual exit out of the evening sky, not to be seen again in the evening until next autumn. Until about mid-June, the evening sky is in a bit of an intermission between the bright stars and constellations of winter and most of the great summer shiners. Don’t get me wrong. There are still many magnificent jewels to see in the May night sky!

If you enjoy warmer moonlit evenings, you’ll love this first week of May. This weekend evening are lit up by a waxing gibbous moon and this Thursday we’ll have a full moon. If it seems to you that the full moon is slightly bigger and brighter, you’re right. It’s another Supermoon, the last one of 2020. The moon will be over 16,000 miles closer than average to Earth. As lovely as full moons are, they whitewash the sky, making it tough to see dimmer stars and celestial treasures.

One of the victims of the moon’s light is the peak of the annual Eta Aquarids meteor shower. It peaks during the early morning hours of this Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from a little after midnight to just before morning twilight. Normally you would see 10 to 20 meteors or “shooting stars an hour but because of the excessive moonlight, you’ll see way less than that. The cool thing though about the Eta Aquarids is that it’s produced by debris left behind by Halley’s comet.

The planet Venus is beaming very brightly in the early evening western sky. In early May it sets about three hours after sunset. It’s as bright as it can be and is about as close to Earth as it can be. At the start of May, Venus is about 39 million miles away, and by the end of the month it will only be around 27 million miles from Earth. This is Venus’ grand finale in our evening sky for 2020. As May continues it will start out in the evenings lower and lower in the west, and by early June, Venus will have disappeared.

As bright and close as Venus is, it’s not much of telescope target with its very dense and complete cloud cover. What’s cool this month is that even through a small telescope or binoculars, Venus will resemble a thin crescent moon. Since Venus’ orbit around the sun lies within Earth’s orbit, it goes through phases like our moon. Venus is approaching what’s called inferior conjunction when it will be roughly in a line between the Earth and the sun.

We still have some winter constellation holdouts like Gemini and Auriga in the low west-northwest sky after evening twilight but all in all, spring constellations have taken control. In the high south-southwest, you should have no trouble finding the bright constellation Leo the Lion. The right side of Leo is a distinctive backward question mark of stars that outlines the head and chest of the cosmic lion. At the bottom period of the question mark is Leo’s brightest star Regulus that denotes the lion’s heart.

In the northern evening sky the Big Dipper is riding high and upside down at the start of the month and beginning to hang by its handle at month’s end. Technically the Big Dipper is the rear end and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear.

Elsewhere in the northern sky is the Little Dipper, lying on its handle, with the North Star, Polaris, at the end of the handle. The Little Dipper is also more formally known as Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. There’s also Cassiopeia the Queen, resembling a big W, in the very low northwestern sky.

In the high eastern sky the brightest star you can see is Arcturus. It’s the brightest shiner in the constellation Bootes the Farmer and also one of the brightest stars in the entire night sky. Bootes looks more like a giant kite with Arcturus marking the tail. According to Greek mythology, Bootes the Farmer is hunting down Ursa Major, the Big Bear.

The giants of our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, are keeping close company in the early morning pre-twilight. Look for them side by side like cat’s eyes in the low south-southeast sky about five degrees apart. You can’t miss them! They’re the brightest star-like objects in that part of the sky. Jupiter is the brighter of the two, with Saturn to its right. Since they’re so low in the sky, viewing them through a small telescope may be a little disappointing. They’ll be fuzzy because of the thicker layer of Earth’s atmosphere close to the horizon.

A little to the left of Jupiter and Saturn in the low southeast sky is the bright, distinctly red-tinged planet Mars. Our Martian neighbor is getting brighter and brighter as it gets ready for its big show in the evening sky this October when it’ll be super close to the Earth. Stay tuned!!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and at  adventurepublications.net.


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