WHAT'S UP THIS MONTH - MAY 2021

(Link to What's Up June 2021)

(Link to What's Up April 2021)

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THESE PAGES ARE INTENDED TO HELP YOU FIND YOUR WAY AROUND THE SKY

The chart above shows the whole night sky as it appears on 15th May at 22:00 (10 o'clock) British Summer Time (BST). As the Earth orbits the Sun and we look out into space each night the stars will appear to have moved across the sky by a small amount. Every month Earth moves one twelfth of its circuit around the Sun, this amounts to 30 degrees each month. There are about 30 days in each month so each night the stars appear to move about 1 degree. The sky will therefore appear the same as shown on the chart above at 9 o'clock BST at the beginning of the month and at 11 o'clock BST at the end of the month. The stars also appear to move 15º (360º divided by 24) each hour from east to west, due to the Earth rotating once every 24 hours.

The centre of the chart will be the position in the sky directly overhead, called the Zenith. First we need to find some familiar objects so we can get our bearings. The Pole Star Polaris can be easily found by first finding the familiar shape of the Great Bear ‘Ursa Major' that is also sometimes called the Plough or even the Big Dipper by the Americans. Ursa Major is visible throughout the year from Britain and is always quite easy to find. This month it is directly over head. Look for the distinctive saucepan shape, four stars forming the bowl and three stars forming the handle. Follow an imaginary line, up from the two stars in the bowl furthest from the handle. These will point the way to Polaris which will be to the north of overhead at about 50º above the northern horizon. Polaris is the only moderately bright star in a fairly empty patch of sky. When you have found Polaris turn completely around and you will be facing south. To use this chart, position yourself looking south and hold the chart above your eyes.

Planets observable in the evening sky: Mars.

EXPLORING THE NIGHT SKY THIS MONTH

The night sky looking south at about 22:00 BST on 15 th May

The chart above shows the night sky looking south at about 22:00 BST on 15th May. West is to the right and east to the left. The point in the sky directly overhead is known as the Zenith and is shown (in red) at the upper centre of the chart. The curved brown line across the sky at the bottom is the Ecliptic or Zodiac. This is the imaginary line along which the Sun, Moon and planets appear to move across the sky. The brightest stars often appear to form a group or recognisable pattern; we call these ‘Constellations'.

Constellations through which the ecliptic passes this month are Taurus (the Bull), Gemini (the Twins), Cancer (the Crab), Leo (the Lion), Virgo (the Virgin) and Libra (the Scales) just coming into view in the east.

Taurus is just moving over the western horizon soon after the Sun sets so it will be difficult to see this month. Following Taurus is the constellation of Gemini (the Twins). The two brightest stars in Gemini are Castor and Pollux that are named after mythological twins. To the north of Taurus is the odd pentagon shape of Auriga (the Charioteer). Dominating Auriga is the brilliant white star Capella which is high in the west in early evening. For those with a telescope there is a line of lovely open clusters to search out in Taurus and Auriga. These are M35 in Taurus and M36, M37 and M38 in Auriga.

To the east (left) of Gemini is the rather indistinct constellation of Cancer (the Crab). The stars of Cancer are quite faint and can be difficult to discern especially in a light polluted sky. It is worth searching out Cancer using binoculars or a small telescope to see the Open Cluster M44 Praesepe (the Beehive Cluster). M44 is older and further away than M45 (the Seven Sisters) so is fainter but still looks lovely. It has a group of stars that resemble an old straw Beehive with bees around it.

The constellation of Leo (the Lion) follows Cancer along the Ecliptic and is a very interesting constellation. It does actually look a little like a lion or the Sphinx in Egypt. Around and between Leo and the neighboring constellation of Virgo is a cluster of galaxies. Our Milky Way galaxy and our local group of galaxies are members of this larger group of galaxies called the Virgo Cluster. A medium sized telescope (150mm to 200mm) and a dark sky is required to see these faint objects.

Following Leo is the less obvious constellation of Virgo but it does have one fairly bright star called Spica. Virgo gives its name to a large cluster of Galaxies that is also spread over into the neighbouring constellations of Coma Berenices (Berenices' Hair) and into Leo.

To the north of Virgo is the bright orange coloured star called Arcturus in the constellation of Boötes. Arctaurus is a Red Giant star that is nearing the end of its ‘life' as a normal star. It has used almost all of its Hydrogen fuel and has expanded to become a Red Giant, 25 times the diameter of our Sun. At the moment it shines 115 times brighter than our Sun but it is destined to collapse and become a White Dwarf.

Higher in the south east is the constellation of Hercules (the Strong Man). Hercules has a rather distinctive distorted square shape, at its centre, called the ‘Keystone'. This is due to its resemblance to the centre stone of an arch or bridge. The jewel of Hercules is without doubt is the Great Globular Cluster, Messier 13 (M13). M13 can be found in the western (right) vertical imaginary line of the ‘Keystone'. It is just visible using a good pair of 9 x 50 binoculars. The spherical cluster, of about a million stars that can be seen using a 90mm f 10 telescope but will look even more impressive when using a larger telescope.

 

THE CONSTELLATIONS OF HERCULES AND BOÖTES

 

The constellations of Hercules and Boötes

The chart above shows the constellation of Hercules and its location to the west (right) of the bright star Vega in the Summer Triangle. Hercules is the great strongman from Greek mythology. He is illustrated in the picture below (up-side-down), as he appears in the sky, with a club held above his head. The ‘Keystone' asterism (shape) can be a little difficult to identify in a light polluted sky but easy to find again.

The jewel of Hercules is without doubt is the Great Globular Cluster, Messier 13 (M13). M13 can be found in the western (right) vertical imaginary line of the ‘Keystone'. It is just visible using a good pair of 9 x 50 binoculars. The cluster, of about a million stars, can be seen using a 90mm f 10 telescope but will look even more impressive when using a larger telescope.

The Great Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules

Globular clusters are thought to be the cores of small galaxies that have ventured too close to a Giant Spiral Galaxy like our Milky Way.

The outer stars of these smaller galaxies have been stripped away, by the gravity of the giant spiral. This process has left the dense cores as clusters of between 100,000 and a million stars. There are about 100 Globular Clusters in a halo around the Milky Way. There is another Globular Cluster in Hercules M92 but it is further away and needs a telescope to see.

The Globular Cluster Messier 92 (M92) in Hercules

 

BOÖTES

To the west of Hercules is the bright orange coloured star called Arctaurus in the constellation of Boötes the Herdsman. Arctaurus is the only bright star in Boötes, the other stars are fainter and form the shape of an old fashioned diamond shaped kite with Arctaurus located where the string of the tail would be attached.

Arctaurus is a Red Giant star that is 2.2 times more massive than our Sun and more advanced. It has used almost all of its Hydrogen fuel and has expanded in diameter to around 25 times that of our Sun. As it has expanded, the energy created in its core has been spread over its increasing surface area so the surface is becoming cooler and ‘redder' so it has become a ‘Red Giant' star. At the moment it shines 115 times brighter than our Sun but it is destined to eventually collapse to become a White Dwarf, surrounded by a Planetary Nebula.

The beautiful red giant star Arctaurus in Boötes

 

THE SOLAR SYSTEM - MAY 2021

The planets at 08:00 on 18th May

The chart above shows the location of the planets relative to the Sun at 08:00. This is daylight so the sky has been darkened to make the planets visible. The planets to the west of the Sun (right) will be visible in the early morning sky before sunrise. The planets to the east of the Sun (left) will be visible in the early evening sky after sunset.

MERCURY will be visible in the early evening sky as soon as possible after sunset. It will be quite difficult to find in the bright sky and will require a clear view west.

Mars, Mercury and Venus in the early evening sky

VENUS will also be visible in the early evening sky as soon as possible after sunset. It will be brighter than Mercury and easier to find but will require a clear view western horizon.

MARS is still well positioned in the evening sky moving through Taurus and will be in the south as the sky darkens. It is getting smaller at about 4.0 arc-seconds as Earth pulls further away. Mars will be around until the end of May but will be moving closer to the south western horizon. After it has moved over the horizon we will not see it again for nearly two years.

JUPITER will be rising in the South East from about 02:30 and will be visible in the east just before sunrise. Jupiter and Saturn will move further away from the Sun during the year and will be at their best for observing in August. Jupiter will be at opposition on 20th August.

SPECIAL MUTUAL EVENTS ON JUPITER DURING MAY 2021

Jupiter in the early morning in May 2021

There is something interesting happening that makes it very worthwhile getting up to observe Jupiter in the early morning before sunrise. Every six years the orbital plane of the four Galilean moons is edge-on with the Sun and Earth so we enter the season of Mutual Phenomena. This is when the moons pass in front or pass behind Jupiter. Even more significant is the moons can Eclipse or Occult each other.

The season began on 3rd January when Europa partially eclipsed Io and will finish on 16th November with a Ganymede-Io occultation. Although Jupiter is still low at dawn it will still be possible to follow the events.

Diagram showing types of Mutual Events

Transits occur when a moon passes in front of Jupiter. The moon is actually very difficult to see while it is in front of the planet as it is lost in the glare from the surface. A moon can also pass behind the planet in what is called an Occultation.

The moons can also pass in front of or behind another moon when we see Jupiter with its equator edge on to us producing a ‘Mutual Event'.

Occultations occur can when a moon passes behind another moon. These events can be Partial, when one moon partially obscures the other. Annular is where a smaller moon passes in front of a larger moon. A Total Occultation occurs when a larger moon completely obscures another moon. See the diagram opposite.

Eclipses occur when a moon casts its shadow on to another moon. It is quite easy to see because as the shadow crosses the surface of the moon it will be seen to darken. These events can be Partial when the shadow of one moon falls on to another moon but does not completely cover it. An Annular Eclipse occurs when the shadow of a smaller moon is projected on to a larger moon. A Total Eclipse occurs when the shadow of a larger moon completely covers a smaller moon.

A Planetarium Application is needed to predict when these events are due to occur. The larger screen on a PC or laptop will make it easier to see the events when using a Planetarium Application.

Always check the weather forecast before setting the alarm for early the morning ‘wake up' in case Jupiter cannot be seen due to clouds.

Using an accurate clock (a radio controlled clock is best) the actual times of the event can be annotated to your sketches to make them more interesting and scientific. The times can also be compared to the times predicted by the planetarium programme .

There is still time to see a few of these interesting events because they will continue until November but in reducing numbers. If we miss this series of Mutual Events we will have to wait another six years before the next series of the events occur in 2027.

The planets Uranus, Neptune, Jupiter and Saturn at 04:45 on 20th May

SATURN will be even more difficult to see than Jupiter in the bright early morning sky. The ringed planet rises just before Jupiter in the south east at about 02:00. Saturn will be at its best this year on 2nd August when it will be at opposition and will be due south at midnight.

URANUS will be very difficult to find in the brightening early morning sky and will need a telescope. This month it will rise in the south west at about 04:45.

NEPTUNE will be just visible this month to the east of Jupiter. It will be difficult to see in the brightening morning sky as it is only magnitude +7.8.

THE SUN

The Sun rises at about 05:25 at the beginning of the month and 04:50 at the end of the month. It sets at 20:30 at the beginning of the month and 21:00 at the end. It will reach its highest point in the sky on 21st June the Summer Solstice. There have been few small Sunspots during April.

Sunspots imaged by SOHO

 

THE MOON PHASES DURING MAY

Last Quarter will be on 3rd May

New Moon will be on 11th May

First Quarter will be on 19th May

Full Moon will be on 26th May

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