May 2, 2016

The Night Sky:
May will be good month for observing the  'red planet' 


Mars will be at opposition on May 22.  Opposition occurs when the sun and Mars are on opposite sides of the earth.  That means Mars will be the brightest it’s been in 11 years, with a magnitude of -2.1.  This is the great opportunity to observe the "red planet." 

Jupiter will be well above the horizon at dusk in the beginning of May. It will set just before 4 a.m. Mars will rise around 9:46 p.m., followed by Antares at 10:06 and Saturn at 10:13 p.m.  This small triangle is easy to spot, making it easy to find the two planets.

Mercury will set at 8:40 p.m. on May 1. Mercury is very close to the sun, so don’t look for it before the sun has set.  Even at dusk, the sun can be bright enough to cause eye damage.

Mercury will set about seven minutes earlier each night as May progresses. Each night it will get closer to the setting sun.  On May 9, Mercury will literally transit across the face of the sun. Do not try to watch this event with the naked eye or sunglasses --  you will damage your eyes!  If you want to view this event, you will need a telescope equipped with a very good solar filter.  The next transit of Mercury will be in 2019.

Pluto will rise at about 12:40 a.m. on the morning of May 1.  

Neptune and Uranus will not offer good viewing in May.

The Eta Aquarids meteor shower will peak at about 4 a.m. on May 6.  The Eta Aquarids usually offer about 60 shooting stars per hour!  This meteor shower will appear to originate in the eastern sky.

Vega rises just after sunset in the northeast.  It’s the fifth brightest star in the sky. Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra.  Vega was the first star -- not counting the sun -- to be photographed in 1850.  You could consider that the first step in deep space astrophotography!


I want to express my gratitude to the Cape Hatteras Electric Cooperative for improving the night skies of our island.  Replacing the old high-pressure sodium vapor street light fixtures with the new directional LED fixtures have made our night skies much darker.  I hope our local businesses and homeowners will follow suit and reduce their use of outside lighting. 

My wife and I were in Hawaii for most of April.  When we were on the big island, we took the tour of Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea is a 13,800-foot dormant volcano.  Most of the time, the mountain top is blessed with clear, dry skies because it is literally above the top of the clouds.  Mauna Kea is home to several of the most advanced observatories in the world, including the 8.2-meter Subaru Telescope and the twin 10-meter telescopes at the Keck Observatory.  

This was probably the only time in my life that I have had the pleasure to experience a Level 1 sky on the Bortle light pollution scale.  Even though we were only allowed to view the big “working” observatories from the outside, I did get a chance to discuss several items of interest with local astronomers that will hopefully improve my observations and photography in future articles.

This is a view of the UKIRT (United Kingdom Infrared Telescope).  It is currently operated by NASA and will be decommissioned in the near future.

After our vacation, I took a couple of fair images on the night of April 26.  This is M63, the Sunflower Galaxy.  It’s about 31 million light years away.

I also took this image of M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. At 23 million light years away, it’s a little closer to home.


New moon: May 6
First quarter: May 13
Full moon: May 21
Last quarter: May 29


A planet is said to be in "opposition" when it is on the opposite site of the earth from the sun.

A planet is said to "transit" the sun when it crosses between the earth and the sun.  Obviously, only Mercury and Venus can transit the sun.

(Gerry Lebing is a retired computer scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C.  He has visited Hatteras Island since the mid-1970s. He and his wife, Karen, have owned property here for several years and moved to their home in Waves full-time in 2013.  Astronomy is a subject that Gerry says he has always been interested in and one that he pursues seriously -- he's built an small observatory next to his house. You can send him questions about the night sky through e-mail, [email protected].)

comments powered by Disqus