Jupiter, Venus and Mercury gather for Memorial Day party

April 27, 2013

Contemplate a crowded sky at dusk in the west-northwest toward the end of May. Like Ocean City sunbathers, Jupiter, Venus and Mercury jam-pack the sundown heavens for Memorial Day weekend.

In the present, Jupiter commands our western evening heavens. You can’t miss Jupiter since it is a negative 1.9 magnitude (very bright), and you’ll spy it from the urban parts of the metro area.

On May 11, a youthful sliver of a moon hangs under the bright Jupiter, but by the next night, the waxing moon has hopped over the large gaseous planet.

While the moon plays hopscotch with Jupiter, check toward the low, western horizon for Venus. After a hiatus from our heavens, the effervescent Venus climbs away from the sun. At dusk, it’s emerging day by day from the sun’s glare, and it gets closer to Jupiter night by night.

When the fleet Mercury joins the Jupiter-Venus frolic in mid-month, sky-gazers will be set for the treat — a planetary triple play.

By May 20, Jupiter, Venus and Mercury form a line in the sky. Mercury and Venus even up around May 22-23. On May 25, the planets form a triangle: Venus takes the bottom point, Jupiter grabs the top left position and Mercury holds at top right. By Sunday, May 26, Mercury takes the upper right position.

The planets form a scalene-style triangle May 27.

Then, over the next few days, the triangle breaks up. Mercury and Venus climb in the sky, as Jupiter walks off into the sunset. And so it goes.

Find Saturn in the east-southeastern sky at dusk now, at zero magnitude, which is bright enough to see through urban light pollution. By mid-May, our favorite ringed planet hangs high in the southeast when dark falls, and the planet will be very high in the south in the evening’s later hours.

On May 10, an annular solar eclipse occurs on the other side of the world in Australia and the Pacific Ocean. A penumbral lunar eclipse occurs May 25, but the Earth’s penumbral shadow casts such a razor-thin, imperceptible shade that we probably won’t see it.

Down-to-Earth events:

●May 4 — “Star stories,” a program on constellations, at the Montgomery College planetarium, Takoma Park, 7 p.m. www.montgomerycollege
.edu/Departments/planet/
.

●May 4 — As Saturn ascends the east, Jupiter sets in the west. “Exploring the Sky,” hosted by the National Park Service and the National Capital Astronomers. At Rock Creek Park, near the Nature Center in the field south of Military and Glover roads NW. 9 p.m. www.capitalastronomers.org.

●May 5 — Astronomer Owen Parry talks about the cosmos prior to telescope viewing at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 9 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/
openhouse
.

●May 5 — “Space Weather Storms: Not if, but When,” a lecture by NASA astrophysicist Madhulika Guhathakurta, at the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club meeting. Room 163, Research Hall, George Mason University, Fairfax. 7 p.m. www.novac.com.

●May 7 — “Vesta in the Light of Dawn,” a lecture by Carol Raymond, principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who will present data from the Dawn spacecraft mission. At the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, Air and Space Museum on the Mall. 8 p.m. www.airandspace.si.edu.

●May 11 — It’s Astronomy Day at Sky Meadows State Park, near Paris, Va., hosted by the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. Enjoy safe views of the sun, games for kids, see gorgeous night-sky views through telescopes. Daytime talk topics include getting started in astrophotography and understanding meteors, asteroids and comets. 3-11 p.m. Free; $4 state park parking fee. Details at www.novac.com.

●May 11 — “Messenger’s Surprising Images of Mercury,” a talk by Nancy Chabot of the Applied Physics Laboratory, at the National Capital Astronomers meeting, University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. www.capital
astronomers.org
.

●May 16 — “Star Trek’s Continuing Relevance,” a panel discussion that features Nancy Reagin, Star Trek historian and author; Mike Gold, Bigelow Aerospace; Margaret Weitekamp, Air and Space Museum historian; and Dan Hendrickson, Aerospace Industries Association. 1-2:30 p.m. At Moving Beyond Earth (Gallery 113), Air and Space Museum on the Mall. www.airandspace.si.edu.

●May 20 — Demerese Salter talks about “The ALMA Observatory: The Largest Astronomical Project in Existence” at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Scan the night sky through telescopes afterward. 9 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at PostSkyWatch@gmail.com

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