Seeing Stars with James Wooten: May 2012

May 2, 2012

May 2012 features three visible planets, visible at convenient evening hours!

Venus appears high in the sky each evening for now, outshining everything but the Sun and the Moon.  Look for it in the west at dusk. However, in May 2012 it appears a little closer to the horizon each night — especially after mid-month. That’s because Venus has come around to our side of the Sun and is about to ‘lap’ Earth on its faster orbit.  On June 5, Venus will align so well with Earth and Sun as to appear in silhouette against the Sun’s disk — a phenomenon known as a transit of Venus.  Thus, Venus becomes harder and harder to see as we approach June 5.

May Star Map

Mars remains an evening object.  Face south at dusk and look for a reddish star to the left of Regulus in Leo.  Although not as bright as Venus, Mars still rivals the brighter stars in the night sky. However, Mars fades a little bit each night as Earth pulls away from it (on March 3, Earth passed between Mars and the Sun).

Saturn has fully shifted into the evening sky.  Look in the south/southeast at dusk this month.  Saturn is near the star Spica.

Jupiter is lost in the Sun’s glare and out of sight this month.

A swath of brilliant winter stars sets in the west at dusk.  Orion, the Hunter, is still visible in the west as May begins.  His two dogs, represented by Sirius and Procyon, are to his left.  To Orion’s right is Taurus, the Bull with Aldebaran as its eye. Gemini, the Twins, are above Orion.  The Big Dipper is above the North Star, with its handle pointing to the right.  From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the east and southeast at dusk.  Leo, the Lion, passes almost overhead in late evening.

As Orion and Taurus set, look for Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, to rise in the southeast.  At the same time, Vega, brightest star of the Summer Triangle, appears low in the northeast.  These stars remind us that summer is on the way.

Moon Phases in May 2012:
Full                                  May 5, 10:35 pm
Last Quarter                  May 12, 4:47 pm
New                                 May 20, 6:47 pm
1st Quarter                     May 28, 3:15 pm

The New Moon of Sunday, May 20, passes in front of the Sun, causing a solar eclipse. However, the Moon is at maximum distance from the Earth (apogee) the day before. Therefore, the Moon is slightly too small in our sky to cover the Sun completely.

The result is an annular eclipse visible from southern China across the Pacific to Midland/Odessa, Texas. In Houston, however, the Sun and Moon set before the annular phase can begin. Thus, Houstonians see a partial eclipse beginning at about 7:35 pm and still in progress at sundown.

Note that you need a west/northwest horizon clear of trees and buildings to see the eclipse, since the Sun will be only six degrees above the horizon when it starts.  If you’ll be traveling to points west of Houston, a chart of the annular eclipse path is here. (Scroll to Sunday, May 20, 2012 under annular eclipses).

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement.

To enjoy the stars in any weather from the comfort of the HMNS Planetarium, click here for a full schedule.

Authored By James Wooten

James is the Planetarium Astronomer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He teaches students every school morning in the planetarium, and also answers astronomy questions from the public.

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