Skywatch: Prime views of the planets in May

April 26

The planets earn coveted places on the moon’s busy dance card in May, while casual skygazers may glimpse a few meteors early in the month.

As night falls, the fleet Mercury starts May as an evening object, exceptionally low on the west-northwestern horizon at negative 1.8 magnitude (very bright). On subsequent days, Mercury climbs higher in the evening sky but concurrently grows dimmer.

Find Mercury about 18 degrees above the horizon at mid-month, but at a negative 0.9 magnitude (bright from urban areas). It drops to zero magnitude (less bright) by May 20, although still high enough to be seen at dusk.

Jupiter hangs in the western sky at sunset, loitering with the twins in the Gemini constellation. Even in light-polluted heavens, it’s an easy evening object to spot at negative second magnitude (very bright). A skinny, young moon approaches the great gassy Jupiter on Friday and Saturday. By Sunday, the moon — filling out a bit — has passed the large planet.

Saturn reaches opposition May 10, which is when, from our earthly perspective, the ringed planet and the sun are in opposite parts of our sky. When we see a full moon, the moon is opposite the sun — from Earth’s point of view. So, think of an opposition as a “full” Saturn (zero magnitude, bright). Found in the east-southeastern sky in the evening, the large, ringed planet hangs out in the constellation Libra.

On Thursday, find Mars lollygagging in the southeastern heavens at negative 1.2 magnitude (bright). A chubby moon and the reddish Mars (found in the Virgo constellation) dance a do-si-do on the nights of May 10 and 11. From darker skies, you may see the gibbous moon scoot past the star Spica on the nights of May 11 and 12.

Before dawn, find the effervescent Venus in the east-southeastern sky. It is about negative fourth magnitude (very bright) and low on the horizon. You will see the waning crescent moon waltzing with Venus on May 25.

The Eta Aquariid meteors peak Tuesday about 3 a.m. Eastern time, according to the International Meteor Organization (IMO.net). The peak rate is expected to be about 60 meteors an hour, but skygazers always see fewer. This shower (produced by the debris stream of Comet Halley) favors the Southern Hemisphere and Earth’s equatorial region, but viewers in the Northern Hemisphere may see straggling shooting stars.

Down to Earth events:

Saturday — Space Day: The “Space-Earth Connection.” Hands-on activities for children. Learn about space and meet NASA astronauts. National Air and Space Museum, the Mall. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. airandspace.si.edu.

Saturday — “Star Stories.” Find something ancient and something new about the constellations, at the Montgomery College planetarium, Takoma Park, 7 p.m. www.montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/planet.

Saturday — Live from Washington, it’s your nightly heavens. “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.

Monday — “Stars Tonight” at the David M. Brown Planetarium, 1426 N. Quincy St., Arlington. 7:30 p.m. $3. friendsoftheplanetarium.org.

Monday — Astrophysicist Michael Boylan-Kolchin talks about the cosmos at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. View the night sky through telescopes, weather permitting. 9 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

May 10 — Craig Markwardt of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center explains current findings of NuSTAR, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, at the National Capital Astronomers meeting, University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. capitalastronomers.org.

May 13 — “How Skylab Changed Solar Astronomy into Heliophysics,” a lecture by Richard Fisher, scientist emeritus, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. At the Lockheed Martin Imax Theater, National Air and Space Museum, the Mall. 8 p.m. airandspace.si.edu.

May 20 — Astronomer Leah Cheek talks at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Scan heavenly objects through telescopes, weather permitting. 9 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

May 31 — Astronomy Day, hosted by the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, at Sky Meadows State Park, near Paris, Va. Learn about the sun, the planets and other sky objects. Stay for the afternoon into the evening for sweet sky views. 3-11 p.m. Free event but $5 state park parking fee. Details at www.novac.com.

May 31 — Star party featuring astronomers from the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club and Sean O’Brien of the National Air and Space Museum to guide you. At Sky Meadows State Park near Paris, Va. Parking $5. Arrive before dark. 8-11 p.m. Park phone: 540-592-3556. airandspace.si.edu.

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at postskywatch@gmail.com.

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