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May * three bright points of spring: Mars, Arcturus, and Vega form a huge bright line across the sky after dark.

ON MAY EVENINGS the Big Dipper still floats almost overhead in the northern sky, upside down and dumping water. Continue the arc of its handle on and around for about one Dipper-length, and you're at bright Arcturus.

Face Arcturus, and off to its right in the south is Mars, even brighter. Lower left of Mars is fainter Spica.

Now draw a straight line back from Mars through Arcturus and continue the line for about twice that length across the sky. This brings you near Vega, Arcturus's equal in brightness, in the northeast.

Arcturus shines a pale but noticeable yellow-orange, much less deep than the yellow-orange of Mars. "Arcturus" means "bear-guard." It and its kite-shaped constellation, Bootes the Herdsman, forever follow Ursa Major, the Great Bear, in its pacings around the northern heavens.

Vega is much lower at the time of our star map on the facing page. It has a slight touch of blue, giving an icy diamond look to its white.

Mars, in the south, is nearly stationary in Virgo this month. Virgo is traditionally supposed to be a girl sowing springtime grain and holding Spica (whose name means "ear of wheat") in one hand. We've connected her dots to form a stick figure that's a strikingly good match to ancient mythological descriptions. Perhaps this is how the early Greeks actually saw her. Most of her huge pattern is dim, with Spica (and Mars this spring) far outshining the rest.

The waxing gibbous Moon joins Mars on the evening of May 10th and then Spica on the 11th.

When the sky is moonless, the area between Virgo's outstretched upper hand and Denebola, Leo's tail-tip, is a wonderland for skilled telescope users. With a 6-inch or larger telescope and highly detailed sky charts, you can hunt out dozens upon dozens of fuzzy bits of faint glow in the great Virgo Galaxy Cluster. Each delicate wisp is a vast galaxy 50 to 60 million light-years away. This is the nearest really full-size cluster of galaxies to us.

North of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster is the big, loose Coma Berenices Star Cluster. Its brightest stars form a dim, upside-down Y to the naked eye in a dark, moonless sky. It's named for the legendary hair of the Roman-era Queen Berenice of Egypt.

Planets in May

Mercury has a good showing at dusk for the last half of May. Look for it low in the west-northwest in twilight. It's lower right of bright Jupiter and lower left of Capella.

Venus is the bright "morning star" shining low in the east during dawn.

Mars, in Virgo, shines brightly high in the southeast at dusk at the beginning of May, then high in the south later in the evening and later in the month. It's close to the much fainter star Gamma ([gamma]) Virginis: a tight, equal double star for telescopes at high power.

Mars fades somewhat from magnitude -1.1 to -0.5 this month and shrinks in a telescope from 14 to 12 arcseconds wide, as Earth pulls ahead of it now in our faster and inner orbit around the Sun.

Jupiter, in central Gemini, is the brightest "star" in the west during and after twilight. It sets later in the night. It too has been shrinking in telescopes.

Saturn, in Libra, climbs higher in the southeast during evening. It comes to opposition on May 10th. Look for it far to the lower left of Mars and Spica.


First Quarter 6

Full Moon 14

Last Quarter 21

New Moon 28

MAY 2014


Early April   1 am *
Late April    Midnight *
Early May     11 pm *
Late May      Nightfall

* Daylight-saving time
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Date:Jan 1, 2014
Previous Article:April * lion and bear in the south and north: Leo and Ursa major are at their very highest these evenings.
Next Article:June * constellations bright and dim: a crown, a strongman, and a set of scales mark the late-spring sky.

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