Memorial Day weekend looms just ahead. It includes a free public “Skywatch” with telescopes at Belleplain State Forest in Cape May County. There is much to see if you can attend. But in today’s column I’ll also be telling you about sky sights and events you can enjoy from your own home these next two weeks. We have the moon posing quite near the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn. There are two rare nights with five visible passes of the International Space Station. There are also some especially amazing sights for those of you with telescopes or the ability to be in the right place at the right time.
I’ll also give you a head’s up about an upcoming astronomy show that should be unlike any other.
This weekend’s Skywatch
This Friday — or Saturday if Friday night is cloudy — the South Jersey Astronomy Club will hold a free public Skywatch starting at 7:30 p.m. at Belleplain State Forest. For detailed information —including directions to the field at Belleplain and the decision about the weather — you can go to www.sjac.us. I hope to attend and assist the astronomy club members in telling you about and showing you planets, constellations, stars, star clusters, galaxies, nebulas, comets and the moon. We’ll also get to see passes of the International Space Station.
Best of all may be the moon and the planets Jupiter and Saturn. On Friday, the crescent moon sets soon after the sun but if clouds delay the Skywatch to Saturday, there will be a longer, higher view of it. Also be advised that Saturn and its rings won’t be rising into view until close to 10 p.m. You may want to wait for it, however, because Saturn is nearing its best position of the year and its rings are now tilted at the most gloriously open they have been since 2002. Easier, high and visible throughout the evening, will be Jupiter, now by far the brightest point of light in the evening sky. The big telescopes at the Skywatch should be able to show us detailed views of the giant planet’s cloud belts and of its four huge “Galilean” moons.
Special events with the moon
Even if you’re just at home and using your unaided eye, you can enjoy marvelous views of the moon forming beautiful close pairings with Jupiter and Saturn on two specific nights. The evening of the Jupiter-Moon duo is Saturday, June 3, with the kingly planet beaming just to the lower right of a gibbous — more than half lit — moon. From 10:22 p.m. to 12:22 a.m. that night, observers with good telescopes can watch the shadows of two of Jupiter’s moons passing in front of the face of the planet. On the evening of Friday, June 9, the night after full moon, the planet Saturn is plainly visible with the naked eye not too far to the lower right of the moon.
If you are a skilled telescopic observer you can also see the half-lit moon’s dark side pass in front of the star Rho Leonis very low in the west about 12:45 a.m. June 1.
Amazing spacecraft wonders
On both the nights of May 26-27 and May 27-28 — the two possible Skywatch nights — the International Space Station makes five visible passes. For details check out www.heav ens-above.com. That’s where you can also find when from your precise location there are those bright flares of reflected sunlight off the Iridium satellites we talked about in our previous column. There is one about 9:51 p.m. Sunday that, for observers at Belleplain State Forest and Hammonton, will shine as bright as a thick crescent moon for a few seconds.
Our biggest eclipse show of all?
I’m trying to set up a big presentation about the August 21 total eclipse of the sun at the planetarium at Rowan University. The date I’m aiming for is Saturday, June 10, but check www.rowan.edu/planetarium to see if we’ve confirmed that day or Saturday, June 3.
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.