MAINE SKIES

May stargazers to witness gathering of Mars, Jupiter, Mercury and Venus

Posted May 02, 2011, at 5:50 p.m.

When shuttle Atlantis pays a final visit to the International Space Station in late June, it will mark the end of the 30-year career of the Space Shuttle program. Essentially the program began with the launch of shuttle Discovery on Aug. 30, 1984, and has had a storied career marked by triumph and the tragedy of losing two shuttles, the Challenger in 1986 upon takeoff and the Columbia in 2003 on re-entry.

Today three working shuttles and one prototype that never flew in space remain and there has been an intense competition among museums and cities as to where they will be retired. The Enterprise that never flew a mission but was used for training of astronauts will be housed at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York City. Discovery will be placed at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institute, Endeavor at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, and Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Houston, home of NASA’s mission control center surprisingly was not considered.

Focus on the Planets.

May will see the most closely grouped gathering of four planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter, that has been witnessed in decades. Saturn is the only planet to inhabit the evening skies.

Mercury is so low in the east during the pre-dawn that it will be difficult to spot without binoculars. Look for Mercury just to the lower left of Venus.

Venus is prominent in the east at dawn and shines so brightly that it cannot be mistaken for anything else.

Mars also occupies the lower eastern horizon as dawn breaks, but is so distant and faint that it likely will be lost in the glare of the rising Sun until late in the month.

Jupiter lies directly below the thin crescent Moon on May 1 and gradually climbs up the horizon until, by mid-month, it will be an easy naked-eye object.

Saturn is the only evening planet found moderately high in the southeast as darkness falls and remains in view until after midnight. The ring system is tilted about 8 degrees to our line of sight and should afford interesting viewing as will its major moon Titan as it circles the planet every 16 days.

Uranus rises at dawn in the east by mid-May and telescope viewers can locate its blue-green disk in a sparsely-populated region of the sky.

Neptune rises in the southeast around well before dawn, and its tiny blue-gray disk may be spotted in roughly the same region where Johann Galle discovered it 164 years ago as that length of time marks one orbit about the Sun.

May Events:

1 Sunrise, 5:26 a.m.; sunset, 7:40 p.m. May Day or Beltane that many celebrate as the cross-quarter day between the spring equinox and summer solstice. Others mark it as May Eve on April 30.

3 New Moon, 2:50 a.m.

6 The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks tonight. With no interference from the Moon, viewers can expect up to 25 meteors per hour out of the region of Aquarius during the predawn hours. The comets are debris from comet Halley.

7 Astronomy Day. See www.astroleague.org for details.

10 Moon in first quarter, 4:32 p.m.

11 Look for a tightly knit grouping of Jupiter, Venus and Mercury in the eastern predawn sky. Mars lies to the trio’s lower left.

13 Look for Saturn just to the left of the Moon at nightfall.

14 The Sun enters Taurus on the ecliptic.

15 The Moon is at perigee or nearest approach to Earth.

17 Full Moon, 7:07 a.m. The full Moon of May is called the Flower Moon, Corn Planting Moon, Grass Moon and Milk Moon.

21 Mercury, Venus and Mars are in a roughly 2 degree circle around 4 a.m.  The Sun enters the astrological sign of Gemini however, astronomically, is still in Taurus.

24 Moon in last quarter, 2:51 p.m.

27 Moon at apogee or farthest distance from Earth.

29 Looking east about 30 minutes before sunrise you will find, in linear ascending order, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter with the Moon above and slightly to the left.

31 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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