May is here, and spring is in full swing. We will gain over an hour of daylight during the month, and usually see an increasing number of clear nights. Of course, you’ll have to stay up later to see the night sky – by the end of the month, sunset will not occur until about 8:48 p.m.
But there is plenty to see when the skies darken. May’s new Moon will occur on May 4, early in the month, with full Moon following on May 18. On May 7, a really nice sight should be the thin crescent Moon lying just to the left of Mars. Look for them low in the western sky after sunset.
The Moon will join Jupiter and Saturn in the morning sky later in the month. Look for the waning gibbous Moon near Jupiter on May 20, and near Saturn on May 22, before sunrise.
The bright planets are mostly still missing in the evening sky. Mars is one exception; the red planet is still visible low in the west, near the Moon on May 7 as noted above. Mars will appear as a fairly bright “star” below the twin stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux. Mars will be about the same brightness as those two stars. The even brighter star Auriga will be above and to the right of Mars.
Jupiter is starting to peek into the evening sky – if you stay up late. It rises at about 11:30 p.m. at the start of the month and will be above the horizon by 9:30 p.m. by the end of May. Saturn rises at about 11:30 p.m. by the end of May.
Spring constellations dominate the May southern sky. Look for Leo, the Lions, high in the south. The Lion’s head looks like a backwards question mark to me. The base of the question mark is the constellation’s brightest star, Regulus. To the left of Leo is a relatively faint constellation, Coma Berenices, or “Bernice’s hair.” On dark moonless nights, you can see the Coma star cluster, a large, diffuse cluster or relatively bright stars, which makes up Berenice’s tresses. Moving a bit farther to the left (southeast), look for the constellation Bootes, with the bright star Arcturus as its base. Arcturus is the 4th brightest star in the night sky.
May 18 is not only the date on which Mt. St. Helens erupted, but also the date that Apollo 10 launched, 50 years ago. Thomas Stafford, John Young, and Gene Cernan became the second Apollo crew to leave Earth orbit.
In a “dress rehearsal” of the Moon landing, Stafford and Cernan piloted the Lunar Module to within eight miles of the Moon’s surface. It was soon overshadowed by the Apollo 11 landing, but it was pretty impressive at the time. After the Lunar module docked with the Command Module, the Lunar module was jettisoned, and the astronauts returned to Earth in the Command Module.
In other Apollo flights to the Moon, except for Apollo 13, the used Lunar module was left in lunar orbit, and eventually crashed into the Moon. Apollo 13’s lunar module burned up upon re-entry in the Earth’s atmosphere. But Apollo 10’s module, nicknamed “Snoopy” was put into an orbit around the Sun.
A few years ago, British astronomers attempted to locate Snoopy, but as far as I know were not successful. Space is enormous, and Snoopy is small!
Gene Cernan later flew on Apollo 17, and was the last Astronaut to walk on the Moon.
If stargazing and astronomy fascinate you, plan to stop by the Columbia Arts Center in Hood River, 7 to 9 p.m. on May 29. Paul Sutter, an astrophysicist and science educator at Ohio State University, will give what should be a very informative talk. Sutter is an excellent speaker, check out his channel on YouTube. The Hood River event costs $10, and the proceeds do to the White Salmon Valley Education Foundation. Don’t miss it!