What’s Up in the Night Sky – May 2017

Written by  Wednesday, 03 May 2017 10:59
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Where oh where are Spirit and Opportunity?  These 2 Mars rovers landed successfully on Mars in 2004.  In 2009, poor Spirit rover succumbed when one of its 6 wheels went lame.  It could travel and move at a much-reduced rate by going backwards but soon it got stuck, and in March 2010 it had to be abandoned.  Incredibly, Opportunity rover is still working very well thank you and still collecting very useful scientific data about Mars.  Just recently it left its data collecting position on the rim of a crater named Tribulation after a 90 day stay.  It is now heading towards a nearby feature called Perseverance Valley.  Spirit lasted 6 years and so far, Opportunity has been constantly collecting valuable data about Mars for 13 years.  Pretty good for a pair of rovers whose mission back then would have been called a spectacular success if they had lasted the 90 days that was their predicted lifetime!  The work of both rovers has been priceless!

Curiosity Rover, a next generation of rover that landed on Mars in 2012, is still going strong.  It has some tire damage from the terrain it has been traveling on but that has slowed it down very little.  It recently sent back to Earth a photo that got published in all the newspapers and went viral on social media!  The object in the photo appears to be a 3-foot-high remnant of a petrified tree.  Of course, it could be just a tall rock.  Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity have established that free running water existed on the surface of Mars a long time ago, roughly in the first billion and a half years of its existence.  Water is necessary for life as we know it.  It is unlikely that water ran free on Mars for a long enough time period for there to have evolved anything more advanced than single celled life forms.  A tree is a very sophisticated life form that would have taken a lot longer than a billion years to evolve.  It took several billion years for trees to evolve and diversify in the much friendlier conditions of Earth.  My resident expert, my wife, says it’s a rock!  I’m not about to argue.

Planets in view during May
May is a pretty good month for planets.  Mars will be swallowed by evening twilight soon but there’s Jupiter as one of several planets prominent in the evening sky to the south east to take its place.  It shows itself about an hour after sunset and it is still above the western horizon at sunrise.  It’s a beautiful sight with its 4 largest moons strung out around it.  They are especially viewable with binoculars.  Saturn comes up near midnight in early May and is high in the south by early morning.  It will reach opposition in mid-June and be very noticeable.  It will be tilted ideally this summer so that a view of the rings through a modest telescope will show details of its ring structure besides being spectacular!  Binoculars provide a good view especially since it will be sitting in a part of the sky near the centre of our Milky Way galaxy.  There is an abundance of nebulae, star clusters and galaxies to also see through the binoculars.  A modest telescope would be ideal for finding some of Saturn’s moons.  Saturn’s largest moon Titan will be north of Saturn on May 7th and13th and to the south on May 15th and 31st.  Venus rises about 2 hours before the Sun in May and although it’s not quite as bright as it was in April, it is still dazzling bright.  It is close to Earth and as it moves away, watch for changes in its appearance.  Use a telescope to see it go from roughly a ¼ illuminated at the start of May to about ½ illuminated by the end of the month.

May 4: 1st quarter Moon.
May 6: Eta Aquariid meteor shower.  It is best a few hours before sunrise after the gibbous Moon has set.
May 10: Full Moon.  It is called the Full Flower Moon and sure enough, my tulips are coming up although our rock garden looks like the surface of the Moon – sterile so far.
May13: Moon passes 3 degrees north of Saturn around 7pm.
May 18: Last ¼ Moon.
May 22: Moon passes 2 degrees south of Venus around 9 am.  Here’s an opportunity to more easily find Venus during the daylight.  Finding Venus during daytime is a feather in any amateurs cap.
May 25: New Moon.
… and comets

There are 2 viewable comets in the sky and one dim difficult one.  
Comet 41P: It can be found near Vega in the constellation Lyra around May 4th.  As the month progresses, it travels south in a sort if straight line down the east side of Hercules.
Comet Johnson: It is north of Bootes in early May and travels down the east side of Bootes.
Comet PANSTARRS: It is low in the east just before sunrise and close to Venus.  Difficult and dimmer than the other 2. Keep looking up!

“The Beginners Observing Guide” by Leo Enright is an invaluable companion for adventures in the night sky.  It contains star charts and is packed with information.  It can be purchased at the Sharbot Lake pharmacy or it can be ordered from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada at www.rasc.ca/publications.  A subscription to our very own excellent Canadian astronomy magazine “SkyNews”, with its centerfold sky chart, can be ordered at the RASC site as well.  

Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to ask questions or report any unusual sights in the night sky.  

Clear Skies! Fred

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