Rare Conjunction of Planets Before Dawn in May

Rare Conjunction of Planets Before Dawn in May
by Rod Kennedy

Get ready sky-watchers.  May is a great month for getting out and observing the sky,  not only because the weather has begun to warm and the sky is steady, but also because there is more to see in May than early in the spring.  The summer constellations have begun to rise in the East and best of all, May gives us a chance to observe a planetary conjunction.

The evening skies of May are well sprinkled with bright stars and easy to recognize constellations.  Looking West we see Betelgeuse, Sirius, Procyon and the twin stars Castor and Pollux.  These stars are 4 of the stars in the Winter Hexagon, an asterism that is bidding us farewell until it reappears in late fall.  Overhead we see the Big Dipper and Leo the Lion.  Leo is easy to see by looking high in the south and finding the bright star Regulus.  Regulus is at the end of an asterism known as the Sickle.  To the East of Regulus is a triangle that marks Leo’s hind quarters, marked by the bright star Denebola.

Turning East we find the bright orange star Arcturus.  Arcturus is easy to find by following the curve of the Big Dipper’s handle.  You can follow the Arc to Arcturus, then “speed on to Spica.”  Spica stands in sharp contrast to Arcturus because it is bright blue instead of orange.  Finding these 2 bright stars is key to finding a far more interesting object.  Looking above and slightly to the south of Spica we find a vaguely yellow “star” in an area where there are no other bright stars. This bright point of light is the planet Saturn.  Small telescopes clearly show the ring system that Galileo first discovered 400 years ago.

While Saturn is a spectacular sight, it is the only planet visible in the evening sky.  To see other planets we must wait until just before dawn.  Looking East in the predawn glow we find the remaining 4 planets visible to the unaided eye.  The brightest will be the planet Venus.  Just above it and only slightly less bright is Jupiter.  Below and to the South is the planet Mercury.  Mars is farther to the North along the same horizontal line as Mercury, almost aloof from its brothers and sisters in the sky.

This rare conjunction of 4 planets will be visible throughout the month.  By the 20th Jupiter will have moved higher in the sky, further from the group and Mars will have joined Mercury and Venus.  The waning crescent moon will pass by Jupiter the morning of the 29th and above Mars on the morning of the 30th.  By the 31st the moon will almost be lost in the glare of the rising sun.

Planetary conjunctions are rare sights in the sky.  A conjunction of 3 or more planets is even more rare.  Yet contrary to popular belief this close clustering of planets will have no effect on events here on earth; unless of course you chose to sacrifice sleep every morning to go out and view this rare event.

May 2011 Sky Chart

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