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The Sky This Week, 2014 May 27 - June 3

The meteor shower was a bust, but other than that...
Sco_Sag_140524_01small.jpg
Scorpius and the Great Sagittarius Star Cloud
imaged near Morattico, Virginia, 2014 May 24, ~03:15 EDT
while waiting for a few Camelopardalid meteors

The Moon returns to the evening sky this week, working her way through the last of winter’s constellations before coursing through the stars of spring.  Look for Luna to the south of bright Jupiter on the evening of the 31st.  She finishes the week by closing in on the bright star Regulus in Leo, the Lion.

The much-anticipated “Camelopardalids” meteor shower that we discussed last week turned out to be something of a bust for most skywatchers, especially those in the city.  I was able to find ideal conditions along the Northern Neck of Virginia, and over the course of about two and a half hours of observing in the wee hours counted half a dozen definite shower members, two or three probable members, and several sporadic meteors.  The half-dozen shower members were all quite bright, relatively slow, and lasted for several seconds, but they all would have probably been lost in the glow of urban street lights.  Still, this was the first time this shower has been recorded in all of history, so it was fun to be a part of the event.  Despite the shower’s poor showing, the view of the summer Milky Way was worth the loss of a few hours’ sleep. 

You can still catch a glimpse of the elusive planet Mercury in the evening sky this week, but you’ll probably need binoculars and a bit of luck with the weather to catch him.  He passed his greatest elongation east of the Sun on the 25th, but this week he begins to plunge back toward Old Sol and his brightness dims considerably.  He will linger just over 10 degrees above the west-northwest horizon about half an hour after sunset, but he’ll lose almost a full magnitude in brightness.  On the evening of the 30th the thin crescent Moon will be about 7 degrees to the south of Mercury, which will be shining at magnitude 1.2. 

The Moon wastes little time catching up to Jupiter in the evening sky.  On the evening of the 31st he’ll be about seven degrees above the lunar crescent, but unlike Mercury he will be quite easy to spot.  Old Jove is slowly drifting eastward against the background stars in a desperate but ill-fated attempt to outrun the encroaching Sun.  You can watch his progress through binoculars as he slowly adds another degree of separation from the nearby 3rd-magnitude star Wasat.  You may still be able to catch a good glimpse of his dark cloud belts and Galilean moons if you point a telescope his way during evening twilight, but he quickly settles into turbulent air as the sky darkens toward full darkness.

Ruddy Mars is also racing against the advancing Sun, and he will ultimately hold his own in the evening sky throughout the rest of the year.  However, we are rapidly losing time to spy detail on his distant face with modest telescopes as Earth pulls away from him.  He is now almost a full magnitude fainter than he was at opposition in early April, and this week his telescopic disc continues to shrink, dropping below 12 arcseconds.  Fortunately some of his most prominent albedo features will face our way for the next two weeks, so owners of modest telescopes may still be able to glimpse some of these features in moments of steady air.

Fortunately Saturn is bringing up the rear of the evening planetary parade, and he will be a welcome sight for those of you who have been squinting at Mars for an hour.  The ringed planet should be easy to spot by 10:00 pm in the southeastern sky, framed by the two second-magnitude lead stars of the constellation Libra, Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali.  Careful observers may be able to note the slow retrograde motion of Saturn with respect to the former star; over the course of the week he’ll move about the apparent diameter of the Moon closer to Zubenelgenubi.  Through the telescope he will continue to do what he does best, eliciting wonder from people who see his mysterious rings.

You’ll still find Venus in the glow of morning twilight.  You’ll find her due east just before sunrise along with the rising stars of Aries, the Ram, one of the signature constellations of the autumn sky.

Mark your calendars for the evening of Friday, June 6th.  That’s the scheduled night for this year’s edition of the annual “Astronomy Festival on the National Mall”.  Astronomers from many different institutions, including yours truly, will be on hand to answer questions and show off celestial objects through telescopes.  More information will be posted next week.


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