With all of the talk about May 21st, I felt it would be helpful to guide observers to a genuine, heavenly lineup that will create a beautiful pattern in the morning sky on the 21st and 22nd. During the entire month of May, the four nearest planets to Earth have been creating a beautiful sight in the morning sky just ahead of sunrise. On May 21st and 22nd, Mars, Mercury and Venus form a compact cluster. Bright Venus is the "guide star" to help you find this grouping in the east. You will want to look about 30-45 minutes before sunrise, and you will need binoculars to see Mercury and Mars, but Venus will shine brightly despite the glare of the soon-to-be-rising Sun. Jupiter is also quite visible in the sky, but each day pulls away to the upper right (toward the south-east) a bit more from the other three planets. Note that the image of the view toward the east, which comes courtesy of Sky & Telescope Magazine, demonstrates that astronomers are confident we'll have something to see the morning of the 22nd!
Four of the five most-visible planets are bunched together in the morning sky, creating beautiful patterns along the eastern horizon at dawn for the next few weeks. Each day the four planets change slightly in position, with bright Venus guiding your eyes to the right spot on the horizon where you can see these four points of light. Use binoculars to find all four planets - Mercury and Mars are much fainter than Jupiter and Venus - and use this amazing animation on the Sky & Telescope website to find the exact pattern as it changes each day. In San Francisco, you will want to look for this between 5:00 and 5:30 am, before the glare of the sunrise washes out the view of the planets.
Meteors are wonderful to see, arriving unannounced and fleeting in an instant across the sky, obligating the hopeful viewer to pay attention or miss this spectacle of the heavens. On any given night if you simply are out viewing the skies, you will probably see one or two, but throughout the year there are special times when the Earth's orbit takes us through a region of space dust, creating meteor showers, in which the intensity and regularity of meteors increases dramatically.
The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks Thursday night, the night of May 5th into the morning of May 6th. This is not the biggest meteor shower of the year, but it certainly is interesting because it is caused by small bits of debris from the trail of Halley's Comet, the famous comet that orbits the Sun and is visible from Earth every 76 years. Comets leave small trails of debris in their wake, and comets that have orbits that intersect the orbit of Earth around the Sun create our annual meteor showers. So if you see an Eta Aquarid meteor tonight, you'll know it was once part of Halley's Comet, having been stripped away by the heating of the Sun on some past fly-by of Earth.
To see this shower, as is the case for all meteor showers, you need a dark location (even a backyard shielded from streetlights in the city will do), warm blankets, a recliner chair or a patch of grass to lie on, a big view of the sky, and patience. The name of this shower is based on Aquarius (the constellation) where the meteors appear to originate from, but they are visible all over the sky. Best viewing for this shower is early morning. The dawn sky will start to brighten around 5:00 am, so you will need to start early Friday morning if you want to see these. Have fun!
The young Moon graces the last vestiges of the winter sky this week, creating a beautiful pattern in the west for several evenings in a row. The big, bold constellations of winter including Orion, Taurus and Canis Major, and the very distinctive asterism the Winter Triangle are sinking lower each evening into the glow of the sunset sky, and on May 4th, 5th and 6th the Moon enters the picture to create a spectacular evening picture.
I have been doing Star Parties and outdoor presentations on astronomy the last few weeks, and the change from week to week has been dramatic. There is a natural change to the sky each evening, as the constellations and bright stars along the celestial equator and zodiac (ecliptic) move approximately 1 degree westward toward the sunset. At the same time, the length of each day is growing, meaning that these great winter constellations are disappearing rapidly into the glare of sunset. But there is nothing to worry about -- they will make their way around the sky to rejoin the view in the early morning, and continue the great ritual of the sky changing slowly from one season to the next.
In 2005 I began writing a column for the San Francisco Waldorf School newsletter called "The Urban Astronomer." I started this blog in 2007 as a place to archive my articles and to offer additional insights on the night sky - even if you live in a big city. In 2008 I became an occasional guest on the KFOG Morning Show, and more recently on KALW and KGO. Archived shows are posted on the blog.