May 2015

Sun and Moon

FULL MOON occurs on the 4th at 05:42 AM. LAST QUARTER (half moon in the morning sky) falls on the 11th. NEW MOON occurs on the 18th of March at 06:13 AM. FIRST QUARTER (half moon in the evening sky) falls on the 25th.

On the 18th the young lunar crescent may be visible over the  eastern Pacific Ocean. It may also be visible under perfect conditions from Mexico, Central America and parts of South America. It may be possible to spot using an opical aid from the US and eastern parts of South America.  On the 19th of May it will be visible from most of the world including South Africa.

The Moon will be at perigee (closest approach to Earth) at a distance of 366 023 km on the 15th at  02:24 AM. On the 27th at 00:14 AM the Moon will be at apogee (furthest from Earth) at a distance of 404 245 km.

Planetary and Other Events – Morning and Evening

Mercury is visible in the early evening sky, and is best viewed towards the beginning of the month. Venus too shines brighlty in the early evenings setting around 20:30 PM (21:00 PM) at the beginning (end) of the month. Note that all the times quoted refer to Cape Town. Mars is too close to the Sun to be visible in May.

Jupiter is visible from sunset, setting around 00:20 AM at the beginning of the month and around 22:45 PM by month’s end.  Saturn is visible all night throughout the month. Uranus is visible in the morning, rising around 05:30 AM at the beginning of the month and around 03:40 AM by months end.  Neptune is also visible in the morning, rising around 02:30 AM at the beginning of the month and around 12:30 AM by month’s end.

The eta Aquariids meteor shower is active from the 21st April to the 12th May, peaking on the 5th of May. The shower originates from dust grains ejected by Halley’s Comet. The grains are distributed along the comet’s orbit. Every time the Earth passes through the dust stream we experience the eta Aquariids meteor shower. Unfortunately, this year, meteor viewing will be hampered by the new Moon. However, to best view the eta Aquariids, look towards the constellation Aquarius between 04:00 AM and 05:30 AM. At the peak, around 60 meteors per hour are expected.

The Evening Sky Stars

Orion can still be seen low in the WNW in the early evening, with bright Sirius (‘The Dog Star’) faithfully following at his heels (or possibly chasing Lepus the Hare into the western twilight). Leo’s upside down question mark should be easy to spot in the north, above the few stars in the Great Bear that creep above our horizon. A bit higher in the north is lonely Alphard, the brightest star in the Water Snake, while another and much brighter orange star, Arcturus, rises in the northeast. Arcturus’ atypical motion and chemical composition mark it as a likely ‘immigrant’, a star from a smaller galaxy which long ago was “eaten” by our own Milky Way giant spiral. A bit higher in the sky is blue-white Spica, rising in the ENE in early evening. Spica appears to the naked eye as a single fairly bright star, but it is actually a system of 5 stars 260 light years away. The two brightest stars in the Spica system rotate around each other once every 4 days, and are respectively 13 400 and 1 700 times as bright as our own Sun. Paradoxically, most of the stars you can see without a telescope are brighter than our Sun, even though most stars in our neighbourhood are much dimmer than the Sun. This is because we can see bright stars even when they are far away, while most stars would be too dim to spot even at the distance of our closest stellar neighbours. Gliese 581, host star to two very interesting planets, is a typical example. This first of these two planets is about 5-6 times the Earth’s mass and is located in the “habitable zone” where it is possible for liquid water oceans to exist on the planet’s surface. The second of these is even smaller with a mass about twice that of Earth, but closer in to its parent star than the former. At only 20 light years away, Gliese 581 is one of our near neighbours, but is 66 times too faint to see with the unaided eye.

Rising in the southeast are the stars of the Scorpion and the Wolf, with the stars of the Cross and the Pointers high in the SE Look out for  Antares, the bright red star in Scorpius . Well up in the SSW is Canopus, second brightest star in the sky and brightest in the great ship Argo, serenely sailing along the Milky Way, which runs from Scorpio in the SE to the Twins and the Unicorn in the NW. Accompanying the Argo are the Flying Fish and the Swordfish, with the Fly and the Bird of Paradise flying on ahead.

The Morning Sky Stars

Achernar, the “Little Horn”, shines brightly high in the SE before dawn, with the celestial river Eridanus flowing down toward the east. Assortments of birds occupy much of the southern sky, including (from west to east) the Bird of Paradise, the Peacock, the Crane, the Toucan and the Phoenix. The stars of the Pointers and the Cross are now low in the SW, with the Scorpion the Wolf and the Altar in the WSW and Sagittarius the Archer still halfway up in the west. The centre of our galaxy, with the most brilliant parts of the Milky Way, is well into the west before dawn, but the Great Rift (a dark band running through the northern Milky Way) is still easy to see. The brightest stars in the NW are Altair in the Eagle, Vega, very low in the NW in the Lyre, and Deneb, the tail of the Swan. The Swan, at the far northern end of our Milky Way on May mornings before dawn, is also known as the Northern Cross. The dim star at the southern end of the Northern Cross is Albireo, a beautiful gold-and-blue double star through a telescope. Albireo’s two suns are far brighter than ours, but they would still be dim compared to Deneb. We don’t know the exact distance to Deneb, and can’t be sure just how bright it is, but the MINIMUM estimate is 60 000 times the brightness of the Sun!

Just east of the point overhead is Fomalhaut, brightest star in the Southern Fish, with the dimmer stars of the Sea Goat and the Water Carrier just to the north. Low in the northeast are the stars of the Great Square of Pegasus, with the two fishes to the south and east, tied together by their tails. Rising in the E before dawn are the stars of the Whale.

But the most carefully watched star on May mornings in at least some parts of Southern Africa was Canopus, known to some as ‘Naka’ (the Horn). Sotho men would camp in the mountains where they made fires and watched the early morning skies in the South. It was believed that the first person to see the star would be very prosperous that year, with a rich harvest and good luck to the end of his life. In olden times the chief would give the lucky man a heifer. The day after Naka was sighted was the time for the men with divining bones to examine their bones in still water, to predict the tribe’s luck for the coming year. Among the Venda, the first person to see Nanga (Canopus) in the morning sky announced his discovery by climbing a hill and blowing a sable antelope horn (phalaphala). Among the Mapeli, the first person to see the star would begin ululating loudly enough to be heard in the next village, which would then join the noise making to warn other villages, each in turn until all knew Canopus had been seen.

Nicola Loaring   30 April 2015

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