Butler County Times Gazette
  • Looking Up: Planets highlight May evenings

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  • May flowers? The evening sky this month blossoms with four planets strung along the ecliptic, across the sky from west to east.
    For months we have enjoyed brilliant Jupiter in the evening sky; since early April 2014, Mars has joined the sky in the convenient hours of evening (before most people turn in and miss the rest of the night sky show). During May, the planet Mercury will shine as well as Saturn after the sun calls it a day and bids us good night.
    Mercury, the first in line from the sun, never wanders far from the solar glare and cannot be seen in a dark night sky, as seen from Earth. Look for Mercury low in the west, about 45 minutes after sunset. The best time to see it, however, will not be till the last half of May, around May 22. Binoculars will aid your search for what will appear like a bright orange speck against the deepening twilight.
    Jupiter will be easily seen, glowing white about halfway up the sky in the west during twilight. If you have even a small telescope, be sure to take a magnified look. You can expect to see a small white disc with at least a couple dark cloud bands. On one or either side, you can see three or four of Jupiter’s moons. They change position constantly, night to night.
    Mars is a beautiful sight, its reddish-orange color revealing the shade of its rocky and sandy surface. See Mars high the southeast. A little less bright, the blue-white star Spica is to the left of Mars.
    A small telescope will show the Martian disc, and perhaps some dark surface features - depending on steadiness of the air and other factors.
    Looking further left and lower in the southeast will be the amazing planet Saturn. Shining bright and yellow-white, by all means inspect it with a telescope if you have one. The rings are nearly fully open, adding to Saturn’s brilliance this year. The sight is incredible even at low power of about 30x or more. They appear to us like an ellipse, with the ball of the planet right in the middle.
    First-quarter moon is on May 6. If you have opportunity to look at the night sky before dawn, you van enjoy the very brilliant planet Venus, low in the east. Here’s a good trick: Catch it in a small telescope, and keep sight of it in the eyepiece, until after sunrise, to say you saw Venus in daylight! (Note: Never look at the sun with a telescope without a safe solar filter, properly used.)
    The major planets and the moon all closely follow the ecliptic - an imaginary line encircling the sky. This is the path where the sun travels, as seen from Earth. Their orbits around the sun are on nearly the same plane, making the solar system nearly as flat as a pancake. Comets, meteor streams, the asteroids and other distant worlds including Pluto, don’t necessarily follow this pattern.
    Page 2 of 2 - Your comments are welcome at news@neagle.com. Keep looking up!
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