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May 2017

After Sunset

Look high in the north for the Big Dipper. As famous as the Dipper is, it’s not always easily visible from our latitude in Tennessee. During the autumn, it stays hidden near the northern horizon, only to emerge in the wee hours of the morning. But in the spring, the Dipper is easy to find, high in the northwest after sunset.

The Big Dipper is not officially a constellation; it’s what astronomers sometimes call an asterism. The Big Dipper is a familiar name for this pattern of stars, especially known to observers in the United States, but it’s not one of the 88 constellations recognized by astronomers worldwide. Ursa Major the Great Bear is the official constellation here, but you’ll need dark skies to see its fainter stars.

Use the two stars at the end of the Dipper’s bowl to lead you to Polaris, also known as the North Star. Polaris is not a particularly bright star, but it does remain fixed in the sky throughout the night and throughout the year, When you face the North Star, you’re facing due north. Polaris is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. This group of stars is also officially known as Ursa Minor the Little Bear.

Imagine poking a hole in the bottom of the Dipper to let the water drip out. The water falls onto the back of Leo the Lion. The head and mane of the lion are represented by a group of stars that looks something like a backwards question mark. Other stargazers imagine the top hook of a coat hanger, or a sickle in this group of stars. The “dot” at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus, the brightest star in Leo. It marks the heart of the lion.

Go back to the Big Dipper once more and follow its curved handle to trace an ‘arc’ to Arcturus, the orange colored star in Boötes the Herdsman. Then speed on to Spica, the single bright star in Virgo the Maiden. Neither of these constellations has any other bright stars. Even under dark skies away from city lights, it’s hard to imagine these mythological figures just by connecting the dots.

Not too far from Spica is the bright planet Jupiter. If you have binoculars, you may be able to see the giant planet’s four largest moons. Watch Jupiter’s moons over several nights to watch them orbit around their parent planet. If you have trouble steadying your binocular view on Jupiter, try leaning them up against the side of a building or another steady surface.

A small telescope not only shows the moons of Jupiter, but also its cloud bands. Jupiter has stripes! Look for our own Moon next to Jupiter on May 7.

Look to the east for the constellation Hercules and the globular cluster known as M-13. Using binoculars, you may be able to spot a round-shaped glow. If that blurry glow doesn’t seem impressive, just remember that it’s a collection of around 300,000 stars, at a distance of over 22,000 light years, at an age of over 11 billion years old.

Stay Up Late

Stay out past midnight and look toward the east to see three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle. Low in the southeast you may find the bright red star Antares in Scorpius the Scorpion, and just to its left the even brighter planet Saturn. A backyard telescope will easily reveal the rings of Saturn, but binoculars will only show the planet as looking slightly oval in shape. Under very dark skies, look for the Milky Way stretching from Scorpius through the Summer Triangle, and on toward the northern horizon.

A Look Ahead

As the Earth orbits the Sun throughout the year, the constellations rise and set just a little bit earlier every day. You won’t see much difference from night to night, but you will over the course of weeks or months. What we see in today’s pre-dawn sky is a preview of the early evening sky in later months. Go out before dawn this month for a look ahead at the summer night sky.

Just before dawn, the Summer Triangle is high the sky and Scorpius crawls along the southern horizon. Autumn constellations such as Pegasus the Flying Horse and Andromeda the Princess are rising in the east. Under very dark skies, the Milky Way stretches from Scorpius in the south to Cassiopeia the Queen in the north.

Remember when brilliant Venus was shining in the evening sky after sunset a few months ago? It’s now rising in the east before the Sun, and will continue as a ‘morning star’ all the way through early November.

800 Fort Negley Blvd. Nashville, TN 37203
Hours: 10:00am - 5:00pm
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