Hubble’s fate an uncertainty

Posted April 29, 2009, at 5:03 p.m.

The Hubble Space Telescope is due to be decommissioned in 2013 and debate has already begun as to whether to leave it in permanent orbit or let it crash into the ocean.

The HST’s replacement will be the James Webb Space Telescope, which will have all the capabilities in the infrared portion of the spectrum that the HST has in the visible. The JWST will weigh almost 7 tons, be as big as a tennis court and have a primary mirror measuring 6.5 meters, or more than 21 feet. Its working life will be 5-10 years. The JWST will search for galaxies and other luminous objects formed shortly after the big bang, observe early star formation and measure the physical and chemical properties of planets around other star systems.

You may recall there were optical problems with the HST that had to be repaired by a visit from space shuttle astronauts. They had better get the JWST right the first time, for there will be no “house calls” at its anticipated orbit of 930,000 miles!

Focus on the planets

Mercury starts the month low in the northwest, about a half-hour after sunset, right next to the Pleiades. Mercury is lost in the glare of the setting sun a few days into the month.

Venus is a brilliant beacon in the east about an hour before sunrise. Venus is the brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon.

Mars is now a faint orange dot to the lower left of Venus. It can be seen with binoculars but no details are visible. Mars and Venus are closing on each other for a close pairing in late June.

Jupiter rises in the southeast about 3:00 a.m. as May opens and progressively earlier each day thereafter. The best time for viewing is about an hour before dawn when surface features and its four major moons will be readily visible by telescope.

Saturn can be seen high in the southwest shortly after dark with the bright star Regulus well to its lower right. Saturn’s ring system has opened a bit and Titan, Saturn’s major moon, will transit the planet on May 14-15 and 30-31.

Uranus and Neptune can be spotted with strong binoculars in the southeast in the vicinity of Jupiter. Directions for finding the two planets are at www.skyandtelescope.com/uranusneptune.

May events

1 Sunrise 5:26 a.m., sunset 7:40 p.m. This is May Day or Beltane, the midpoint between the spring equinox and summer solstice. Moon in last quarter, 4:44 p.m.

2 Mercury is just above the western horizon an hour after sunset, situated next to the Pleiades. The red star to the upper left of Mercury is Aldebaran.

3 Saturn may be seen high in the southwest at dusk with the moon to the planet’s lower right.

6 This is the peak night for the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. The shower usually provides 30-60 meteors per hour but the radiant is so low in the southeast that fewer will likely be seen plus the waxing gibbous moon will also present a problem.

9 Full moon, 12:01 a.m. The full moon of May is called the flower moon, milk moon or corn planting moon.

13 The sun enters Taurus on the ecliptic.

14 The moon is at apogee, or farthest distance from Earth.

17 Moon in last quarter, 3:27 a.m.

20 The sun enters the astrological sign of Gemini, but astronomically is still in Taurus.

21 Look to the east an hour before sunrise for Venus, Mars and a thin crescent moon forming a triangle with Jupiter and Neptune far to the trio’s upper right.

24 New moon, 8:11 a.m.

26 Moon at perigee, or nearest approach to Earth.

31 Moon in first quarter, 11:22 p.m. Sunrise 4:53 a.m., sunset 8:13 p.m.

Send astronomical queries to Clair Wood at cgmewood@aol.com or care of the Bangor Daily News, Style Desk, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402.

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