By Mike Lynch
Stargazing on these spring nights has lost some of its chill, but it’s also lost some of the 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 be returning until late autumn. That’s because the night time side of Earth is facing 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 along with the planet Jupiter 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 by the end of May, that’s about 10 p.m. Stargazing is now officially a late-night affair.
By far the best celestial gem in the evening sky this month is the planet Saturn, starting out in the low southeastern sky after evening twilight. It’s one of the brightest starlike objects in the evening sky right now.
Look for the two brightest stars you can the low southeast. They’ll be fairly close together. The shiner on the lower left is Saturn with a slight yellow tinge to it. The one of upper right is Spica, the brightest star in the large but faint constellation Virgo the Virgin.
Saturn is at its closest point to Earth for 2013. At just under 820 million miles away it’s close enough for great viewing in May. Even through a small telescope you can see its huge ring system. I’ll have more on Saturn next week in Starwatch.
Check out Saturn with a telescope. It’s a must see.
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 6 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.
Technically the Big Dipper is the rearend and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear, but it is the brightest part of the great beast. 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.
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. That’s Arcturus, the brightest star in the eastern sky and 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. The pursuit will go on until midautumn.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations.” Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.
Instructions for sky map
To use this map, cut it out and attach it to a stiff backing. Hold it over your head and line up the compass points on the map’s horizon to the actual direction you’re facing. East and West on this map are not backward. When you hold this map over your head, East and West will be in their proper positions. Attach a piece of red cloth or paper over the lens of a small flashlight so you don’t lose your night vision when you look at this map in red light.