Thursday, 5 May 2016

Clear Skies - the planets, Mercury transit, meteor shower

Here is a copy of the Clear Skies email by David Prud'homme.
With the onset of summer and the lovely longer days, we also lose our dark skies unless we stay up late or get up early.  Still, there are things we can enjoy.

The planets

Jupiter is still shining brightly in the evening sky, and you may even see it as early as 9 p.m. fairly high in the south.  It is now setting in the west just before the Sun rises in the east.  It is currently located in Leo.  If you can find the backward question mark outlined by the stars representing Leo’s head, Jupiter is the very bright “star” to its left.

Mars is now very bright, rising in the southeast just before 11 p.m. Saturn rises a few minutes later, a bit to the left of Mars – less then the width of your fist at arm’s length.  Once they are above the horizon, look for the next bright star in the area, just below Mars. That is Antares, which means “Not Mars (Ares)”, as mentioned in my last note.  Both Mars and Antares have a bit of a reddish-orangish hue.  They now form the base of a nice triangle, with Saturn at the other point off to the left.  The arc of stars representing the claws of the Scorpion are to the right of Mars and Antares.

Mars is getting brighter since it is approaching opposition, which means it will be directly opposite the Sun from Earth’s perspective.  That also means it is the closest it will be to Earth for almost two years. It will reach opposition on May 22, but you won’t notice anything special on that day; just that Mars will be fairly bright in the sky this month.

Transit of Mercury

The big event this month is the Transit of Mercury, in the morning of May 9.   Mercury lines up directly between the Earth and the Sun only 14 times this century.  The last transit was in 2006; the next will be in 2019.  Unfortunately, without proper protection, you must not try to view this event.

The best is to see if a local astronomy group will be observing it.  I unfortunately will be unavailable for local viewing, however, if my plans change, I will let those here in the Oceanside area know.  With a telescope, use only a proper solar filter.  With a telescope, you can look at the Sun through #14 welder’s glass, where Mercury will appear as a dark dot against the Sun.  NEVER look directly at the Sun with your naked eye.

Eastern Canada will be able to view the entire event.  West of Ontario the transit will already have started at sunrise.  Mercury will finish its pass before 4 p.m. in the Maritimes;  3 p.m. in Ontario; 2 p.m. in Manitoba; 1 p.m. in Alberta; and before noon in BC.

If you get a chance to watch this event, you are seeing our solar system in motion.  Mercury is moving in its orbit, closer to the Sun than Earth, and we are seeing it for the roughly six and half hours that it takes to pass between Earth and the face of the Sun.

Minor meteor shower

On Thursday, May 5 (and perhaps for a day on either side) the Eta-Aquarid meteor shower takes place.  This will not be a prolific shower, but, with a bit of luck, you may see a few more meteors than normal.  The Moon won’t be up, so you should be able to observe some of the fainter meteors, as well, hopefully, a few bright ones.  Remember to find a dark spot, away from direct light, and give your eyes a few minutes to adapt to the dark.

Clear skies.


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