M A Y 2 0 0 2 S K Y W A T C H
by Maya del Mar
In my travel advisory I suggest that people stay home this May. Now I add, stay home and watch the evening sky! The huge planetary convention this May is a clue about how portentous these times are.
The great grouping of planets which we can see now after dark in the western sky is the most spectacular weve seen for many years, and wont see again until sometime after 2020. And wonder of wonders, now we see them in the evening in May, when its easy, convenient, and comfortable!
They move. Thats the thing about planets ("wanderers"). If we watch them on succeeding evenings, we can see the deliberate dance of the planets, the rhythm of the spheres in slow motion. As we watch them relate to one another, the planets come alive to us in a new way.
Begin your vigil one-half hour after sunset, as soon as it is dark enough for visibility, to catch all of the planets before they set below the horizon.
From up to down, we can see all the five visible planets. New Moon joins them on May 13-15, and we can watch Moon move rapidly up the ladder. (The planets set in the West due to Earths eastward rotation. In fact their motionas seen from Earthis eastward from day to day, as we can see by keeping a watch on them.)
Start with easy to spot Jupiter, very bright and fairly high. Its been visible for months. Next find brilliant Venus, perhaps 2/3 of the way down to the horizon, and a bit to the right. Saturn, a bright gold, is just above Venus. Dull reddish Mars is very close to Saturn. (Remember that Mars-Saturn conjunction?) Mercury is below and to the right, showing faintly just above the horizon as it comes out of the twilight.
This is the trickremembering to watch every evening. Watch Mars move up above Saturn, and watch Venus pass them both. See Mercury edge up towards Saturn, and stop and move down again as it turns retrograde in mid-month. (No Mercury-Saturn conjunction until early July.)
From May 4-7, Saturn, Venus and Mars form a tight triangle, as Venus and Mars are climbing above Saturn. Just to the lower right lies Mercury, and just to the lower left lies red-orange Aldeberan, the brightest star in Taurus.
Aldeberan, said to impart energy and initiative, conjoins the U.S. Uranus. Now Mercury is pausing right there as it turns retrograde. This influence is very strong all during the middle two weeks in May. We can see it in the sky, on the one hand, and notice events which correspond with it on the other hand. We can all be astrologers, and learn about the Aldeberan-U.S. Uranus conjunction. (In my past observation, it tends to military action.)
On May 10 Venus and Mars are together. However, Venus appears so much bigger and brighter that it probably blots out Mars from visibility.
On May 13 all five planets are minimally separated. At the same time this is the first opportunity to see the New Moon just above the horizon, although binoculars are probably necessary to catch the slim delicate crescent. Earthshine can make it more visible.
The planets clearly show us their path, the path of the Ecliptic. We can easily picture how the Solar System moves along a path on a plane. And as we see Moon move up during mid-May, we can picture how it occults, or eclipses, each of these planets as it moves along the Ecliptic.
Planetary occultations are not that common, and the crowd of them now emphasizes the importance of Gemini. They are visible in selected locations. None of these is visible in the United States. Three of them (Vesta, too) are visible in the far north, and two of them in the South Pacific. The eclipse of Saturn on May 14 is visible in the British Isles and part of Scandinavia
By May 15, Moon is midway between Venus and Jupiter. During the day it crosses Jupiter, and by the night of May 16 is above, or to the east, of Jupiter.
Venus and Mars continue to move up towards Jupiter, and early next month we can watch Venus conjoin it.
Earthshine is another special phenomenon of May. Earthshine is the Moon faintly lit by sunlight reflected from earth. It is visible as a ghostly Moon close to the horizon either just before sunrise or just after sunset, when the Moon is close to the Sun.
Earthshine is most intense during April and May. Look for it low in the west on May 14, just after sunset. You should see a thin crescent Moon hanging low on the western horizon. The bright glow of earthshine gives a ghostly radiance to the whole moon, and this is sometimes called "the old Moon in the New Moons arms." It may also be visible May 15.
Ive seen Earthshine just before sunrise, when the old Moon rose just before the sun. I didnt know then what it was. But I do know that it was an unforgettable sight, a special peek at the universe to see some of the mystery of the Moon come alive.
Watching Mays planets move through the sky is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Dont miss it!