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  • Rapt in Awe

    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

Events May 2014 – Four Easy Planets, Two Challenge Planets, and a Meteor Storm Watch

Click picture for larger image. (Created from a Starry Night Pro screen shot.)

Click picture for larger image. (Created from a Starry Night Pro screen shot.)

May skies have a lot to offer in 2014, for in addition to the usual parade of stars, we have four easy planets to spot, two challenging planets, and a possible “meteor storm,”  one of those once-in-a-life-time sky spectaculars -maybe! There are also a couple of special events for sky watchers in the Southern Hemisphere. Here’s the summary with  links to the details.

Mercury – the Big Tease!

Click image for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Click image for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Mercury is notoriously difficult to see, mainly because it demands that you know exactly when and where to look – and while you should see it with your naked eye and really quite easily, it’s much easier to find with binoculars first.  It also plays this kind of dual game with us. The first part of the game is to be so close to the Sun that it is almost always drowned in the glare of the Sun – even after sunset. (Don’t even think of looking for it with binoculars before sunset – if you accidentally catch the Sun in binoculars you will do permanent damage to your eyes.)

Start looking for Mercury 30 minutes after sunset when – from May 16 to May 28  – it will be a fist or more above the western horizon. That gets it away from the worst of the haze near the horizon and into a sky that is starting to get dark. In the next 30 minutes the sky will get darker – making it easier to see Mercury – and Mercury will get lower, making it more difficult to see.

In addition to this little game, Mercury is actually getting higher in the sky from May 16 to about May 25 – but it’s also getting dimmer – and while it’s still quite high by May 28, it is also more than a full magnitude dimmer than it was on May 16. See why I call it a tease? But you will find it, and when you do, you’ll say “that’s easy!” Yep, if you look on the right night, in the right spot, at the right time, and have an unobstructed western horizon that is also clear, Mercury is a piece of cake! 😉

Here are a couple more charts to help out – note the changes in brightness and background stars even over just a week.

mercury51914

Click image for larger view. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Click image for larger view. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Why is Mercury behaving this way? It’s actually getting about 25 million miles closer to us during the last two weeks of the month. However, like Venus, Mercury goes through phases which can be seen in a telescope as it approaches us because it’s also starting to go between us and the Sun. This means it changes from a disk to a crescent, so while it gets closer – which would mean brighter – there is also less of it seen by us as it moves towards becoming a crescent. So it gives us a double whammy – after the 25th it starts getting closer to the Sun and it also continues to dim.

Storm, Shower, or Drizzle – this could be really cool!

There’s some big news on the meteor front that may result in a very exciting – and ultimately unpredictable – special event in the early  morning hours of May 24th. It’s summed up nicely in the headline from the cover of the May Sky and Telescope which contains an excellent article on the subject.

‘Meteor Storm Watch – Dark with a Chance of Fireballs’

OK – that got my attention. I’ve always been fascinated by those old woodcuts depicting the incredible 1833 Leonids meteor shower. I think they’re a bit exaggerated, but that one apparently really was exceptional.

1833Leonidmeteors

This month we have a short-period comet that may produce a spectacular show for us – but not as a comet. This is Comet 209P/LINEAR and it is scheduled to cross the orbit of Earth and be totally unspectacular, even though it is quite close to us as comets go, you will need a good size telescope just to see it.

 But . . . several expert meteor observers are predicting a sudden meteor shower on the morning of May 24, and if you’re in North America above roughly latitude 40 you are at the right location to have a front row seat should this shower develop. And don’t despair if you’re in the southern US – there still could be some beautiful fire balls for you.  Some meteor experts even are predicting a possible meteor storm – something I have never seen, but would sure love to. And, of course, it may be a total fizzle, or it may be the sky spectacle of a lifetime. . . but cloudy!  You just can’t know – and that sense of anticipation and mystery is what makes these sorts of things extra fun.

Now what does a meteor shower have to do with a comet? Everything.

Meteors are pebble size or smaller generally.  When we run into one going 67,000 miles an hour – that’s our speed in orbit – they collide with our atmosphere much faster than a speeding bullet and almost always burn up before they reach the ground.

 Think about it for one moment.

Imagine something about the size of a pencil eraser 50 miles away and yet burning so brightly that you can see it. Think of whether or not you can see someone strike a match 50 miles away – or see the glow of a cigarette.  That gives you some idea of the speed these things hit with and the tremendous heat that is generated as they collide with our atmosphere.

 Now think about a Comet. Pig Pen, of Peanuts fame, is the best model I can think of for a comet – like Pigpen, a comet leaves a trail of dust behind it. That trail of dust doesn’t go away. It falls off the comet but continues to orbit the Sun. And like Pigpen’s perpetual dust cloud, it just hangs there, like droplets of water in a spacecraft – each grain of sand in its own private orbit about the Sun.

Every August 12 the Earth crosses a trail of dust left by Comet Swift Tuttle. We pass through it and we see lots of meteors, and we call this the Perseids meteor shower. If you catch it at its peak on a dark, moonless night, you may see as many as one meteor a minute.

They are called the Perseids because if you traced each meteor trail backwards, you would see they were all appearing to come from the same part of sky – a small area in the constellation of Perseus. Think of it as an open window that lets the dust of Comet Swift Tuttle tumble through.

In December there is another such shower called the Geminids. These happen every year as well – in fact, there are several more such showers, but the Perseids and the Geminids are seen as the best – most active – of the bunch.

The event this May is more complicated. I don’t know quite how they figure all this, but apparently this little, very dim, unspectacular comet has been laying down trails of dust as it goes around the Sun every five years or so. As one of the experts explains it in the May issue of Sky and Telescope, “all of the trails ejected between 1803 and 1924 cross Earth’s path on May 24.” That’s 25 trails of comet rubble all hitting at about the same time.

They know this precisely enough so that four of the experts are in agreement that this will happen right about 3 am EDT on the morning of May 24.  But they do warn the predictions could be off – generally they think this will be as good, or better, than a Perseids meteor shower. But they also grant that it may be a dud.

 The event is well-timed and placed for those of us in the northern tier of states. Those in the southern states may get a good show from especially bright meteors – but far fewer of them. The rest of the world will pretty much miss out.

 Remember, when there’s a shower, the meteor can appear anywhere in the sky, but you trace them back to their radiant – which in this case will be in the obscure – very obscure – constellation known as Camelopardalis. You all know what a Camelopardalis is, right? I’ll help you. Think giraffe. It’s in the northern sky at 3 am on May 24. To learn more about this area and see a chart, go to my post here. 

Consolation Prizes for the Southern Hemisphere

If you live south of the Equator, May always offers one of the better meteor showers of the year for you, the Eta Aquarids on May 4, 6, and 7th. A few of these may sneak north as well.

Also on the evening of May 13-14 the Moon will be near Saturn for most of us, but for folks in New Zealand and much of Australia the Moon will cross in front of the planet – what is called an occultation. This is cool to see in a telescope, but what I love is the pictures I’m sure it will generate showing Saturn near the edge of the Moon. Seeing Saturn close to the Moon, even in a picture, is a special treat that really drives home the difference in distance. Saturn, which with its ring system is so large that it would actually fill the space between us and the Moon, will look tiny next to our little moon because it is so much more distant.

On the East Coast of the US, Saturn will get within only a couple of degrees of the Moon that night – but as you move west, it gets closer – close enough to catch the two in a low power telescope field in the early morning hours.

And then there’s Uranus and Venus

I was hoping that Venus would guide binocular users right to Uranus, but no such luck. The two will be very close on the night of May 15 and 16, 2014, making it easy for small telescope users to find Uranus – but this will happen in morning twilight, and Uranus will be too faint to see against twilight background with ordinary binoculars. In fact, I think it’s going to be a challenge in a small telescope. The chart below is for an hour before sunrise – at that point Venus is only seven degrees above the eastern horizon. While it should be easily visible, assuming clear skies, spotting Uranus about 10 magnitudes fainter, won’t be easy both because it is so low and because of morning twilight.

To get both in view you need a telescope that will gather some extra light, yet also provide a 2-degree field of view, which is why I consider this a challenge – but fun to try if you enjoy mornings, as I do.

On the morning of May 25th you won’t need anything special to appreciate the Venus show – then you’ll have a beautiful crescent moon just a few degrees above Venus!

 

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