Stargazing on these nights has, for the most part, lost its chill, but honestly it’s also lost some of its thrill.
The winter constellations, overall the brightest of the year, are about to go on a summer vacation from our evening skies and won’t return until late autumn. That’s because the nighttime side of the Earth is turning toward a different direction in space as our world endlessly orbits the Sun. In early May, Orion the Hunter and all of his gang of bright stars and constellations start out very low in the evening in the western sky. By the end of the month, all of the great stars of winter have sunk below the horizon by the time it finally gets dark enough to stargaze, and at the end of May that’s about 10 p.m. Stargazing is now officially a late night affair.
If you do stay up for the show, however, there are celestial rewards.
You’ll see three bright planets in our Everett heavens. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen three planets in the evening sky. The bright planet Jupiter is hanging in the southwestern sky, although it’s not quite as bright and close as it was in the winter. Mars is still shining very brightly in the southeastern sky as evening begins. Last month it reached its closest approach to Earth in more than two years. Even with the naked eye you can see its bright orange-red hue.
Saturn enters the early evening sky right around sunset above the southeast horizon. It’s the closest it’s been in a little more than a year. It’s still more than 850 million miles from our back yards but is still is a great telescope target. Even with a smaller telescope you can see Saturn’s ring system and some of its brighter moons. My advice for looking at Saturn through your telescope is to wait until after 11 p.m. so it will be higher in the sky and won’t be behind so much of Earth’s blurring atmosphere near the horizon.
It’s true that the constellations of spring, at least compared to the winter shiners, aren’t nearly as dazzling, but there’s still much to see. Leading the charge of spring constellations is Leo the Lion in the high southwest. Look for the backward question mark that outlines the chest and head of the great lion. The moderately bright star at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus, more than 77 light-years away, with one light year equaling just under six trillion miles.
If you face north and look overhead this month the Big Dipper will appear to be dumping out on top of you. The Big Dipper is always upside down in the evening this time of year. According to old American folklore, that’s why we have so much rain in the spring, and of course, mostly on the weekends. Technically the Big Dipper is the rear end and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear, but it is the brightest part of the great beast.
Elsewhere in the northern sky is the Little Dipper, lying on its handle, with the North Star Polaris at the end of the handle. Cassiopeia the Queen, the one that looks like the big W, is very low in the northwestern sky.
In the high eastern sky look for the brightest star you can see, which happens to be Arcturus, the brightest shiner in the constellation Bootes the Farmer. Bootes actually looks like a giant nocturnal kite with Arcturus at the tail of the kite. According to Greek mythology, Bootes the Farmer is hunting down Ursa Major, the Big Bear. Since Ursa Major is nearly overhead right now, this is a great time to see the fainter stars that make up the rest of that constellation. See my website, lynchandthestars.com, for details.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist.