What’s better than seeing separate astronomical wonders in your sky? Seeing them paired or grouped closely together, of course. And that’s what we have several special chances of seeing these next two weeks.
Most of these temporary pairings or groupings that involve the moon, which we can also watch hit one major moon phase after another at very convenient times this month — weekends.
The moon’s close encounters include ones with Mars, the big Beehive Star Cluster and Jupiter. But there also is a beautiful and rather rare event whose chief performer is Mars itself: Mars passing right along the edge of Gemini’s biggest, brightest star cluster, M35.
Tuesday night’s compact line of moon, Mars and two stars: Monday night you may have noticed a lovely slender lunar crescent low in the west after nightfall — and just possibly a bright star quite close to its lower left. That orange star was Aldebaran, which marks the eye of Taurus the Bull. Tonight a slightly thicker moon crescent hangs higher, right in line with both Mars and the two stars that mark the tips of the Bull’s horns.
In order to see Mars, which is currently far from Earth and therefore relatively dim, you should wait until about 9 p.m. (about an hour after sunset). You’ll find it about 4 degrees — about two thumb-widths at arm’s length — to the upper right of the moon.
Maybe 5 degrees almost due right of Mars is a star of identical brightness. Although Mars and the star should be visible to the naked eye, we can get an easier view by checking out these objects with the help of binoculars. And a telescope is definitely required for detecting another star, one extremely close to the moon. That star near the moon is called Zeta Tauri and if you know someone in the southeast U.S. who has a telescope, tell them that where they live they may even be able to see this star wink off as it passes right behind the dark part of the moon.
The people in the Southeast and Gulf Coast can get a link to more detailed information about this event by going to skyandtelescope.com and checking out the excellent online column “This Week’s Sky at a Glance.”
The moon passes across the Beehive Star Cluster on Friday: That online column also has a link to details about this Friday’s amazing hiding of dozens of stars in about a two-hour period from roughly 10 p.m. to midnight. The stars hidden by the moon on Friday are covered and uncovered by the moon from about 10 p.m. to midnight that evening. They are members of M44, the Beehive Star Cluster in Cancer the Crab.
Some of you may remember that far from city lights back on one night in January, the Beehive was a big hazy patch of light visible to the naked eye not too far from the totally eclipsed moon. This Friday evening the moon is one day short of being half lit and everyone in the eastern U.S. will need a telescope to glimpse the Beehive stars just before they disappear one after another behind the dark part of the moon.
The moon nearing Jupiter on the night of May 19 and 20: On May 19, the moon, just pass full, rises around 9:15 p.m. Not too long after 10 p.m. the now-very-bright point of light that is Jupiter comes up. All that night long, the moon is getting steadily closer to Jupiter in the sky.
By late in morning twilight on May 20, the moon is still about 4 degrees — almost half the width of your fist at arm’s length — to the right of Jupiter. And Jupiter is now close to peak brightness.
Mars at the edge of a star cluster: At nightfall on May 19, Mars is no longer in Taurus, it is in Gemini. A good telescope that evening will show the many stars of the star cluster M35 with bright and orange-yellow Mars burning on the northeast border of the cluster.
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.