2018-5-1 : What’s Up in the Night Sky in May 2018?

The Moon and Saturn meet Mars in the morning as NASA’s InSight spacecraft launches to the red planet on May 5.

Some lucky viewers in Central and Southern California, and even into the coast of parts of Mexico will get a chance to see the launch of InSight–NASA’s latest mission— with their unaided eyes AND see the spacecraft’s destination, Mars, at the same time! InSight is scheduled to reach Mars on November 26, 2018.

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The launch window from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California opens on May 5, at 4:05 a.m. Pacific Standard Time and lasts for two hours. On subsequent dates,

The window opens a few minutes earlier each day until 1:30 a.m. Pacific time on June 8th. This will be the first interplanetary launch from the West Coast.

Mars shines a little brighter than last month, as it approaches opposition on July 27. That’s when Mars and the Sun will be on opposite sides of Earth.

This is will be Mars’ closest approach to Earth since 2003!

Compare the planet’s increases in brightness, with your own eyes between now and August!

The Eta Aquarids meteor shower will be washed out by the moon this month. This shower is better viewed from the southern hemisphere, but medium rates of 10-30 meteors per hour may be seen before dawn.

Of course, you could travel to the South Pacific to see the shower at its best!!

There is no sharp peak to this shower—just several nights with good rates centered on May 6th.  Give yourelf an hour to view meteors, as they sometimes come in spurts with lulls in between.

Plus it takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to dark adapt.  You don’t need to look directly at the radiant, the direction in the sky the meteors appear to radiate from.  Instead, look away or even lie on the ground looking directly overhead. That gives you a wide amount of sky to watch comfortably.

Jupiter reaches opposition on May  9th, heralding the best observing season for Jupiter viewing, especially mid-evening. This is when the planet is on the opposite side of the sky to the sun. In this position Jupiter appears brighter and even larger through a telescope. It is a fast spinning gas giant; its equatorial regions bulges outwards. The Great Red Spot  is a huge, never ending storm, having been seen for the last 188 years. A 4 inch telescope is needed to see this feature.

The king of the planets rises in the East at sunset over Oak Bay and Mount Baker, setting over the Sooke Hills in the West at dawn.

Wait a few hours after sunset, when Jupiter is higher in the sky for the best views!

If you viewed Jupiter last month, expect the view to be even better this month!

Ganymede transits Jupiter May 14th.  This is the largest planetary moon in the Solar System,  larger than planet Mercury even. As it crosses Jupiter’s disc on May 14, it will be followed by its giant shadow at 18:00 PST.  Unfortunately in Oak Bay,  it will be too light to see.

Venus is also stunning this month. It is visible low above the north-west horizon after sunset. If you are driving to the airport, it is low over Mount Newton to your left, following you from over the Malahat all the way to the airport – like the “Star of David”.   It would be well worth driving your kids up Mount Tolmie before bedtime to see Venus. But please don’t forget your binoculars.

As you watch the super-bright planet Venus, look for its accompanying star Aldebaran — the red “eye” of Taurus, the bull.  Remember planets (the wanderers) are local to Earth inside our solar system, whereas stars are often full galaxies located light years away.  These two star-like objects will appear to be separated by the width of your fist. While both objects will appear similar in brightness, you should be able to detect their distinct colors: bright white for Venus and orange-red for Aldebaran.

You can catch up on solar system missions like Insight, and all of NASA’s missions at www.nasa.gov

Dark Skies to all friends of Cattle Point Star Park.

This summary is from the transcript of “What’s Up in May 2018” by NASA announcer and astronomer Jane Houston Jones with specific permission for localization to Cattle Point DARK SKY Urban Star Park and the Oak Bay News.

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