Highlights of the spring’s night sky

With fewer bright stars and a less prominent Milky Way, the evening sky of spring pales in comparison to the richer skies of winter and summer. Still it has plenty to commend it. For starters spring is when the Big Dipper is highest in the north with its pointer stars aiming down at Polaris, the North Star. (The pointer stars are the two stars forming the bowl’s outer edge.) The dipper is upside down, and according to legend, emptying its contents on Earth, producing our spring showers. The Big Dipper is helpful in finding other inhabitants of the spring sky. The dipper’s handle, sticking out from the bowl’s right, arcs 30 degrees to the bright orange star, Arcturus, now half way up in the east. (The width of your fist held at arm’s length is 10 degrees.) The arc continues another 30 degrees to the bright white star, Spica, lower in the southeast. A corny but useful saying can help you remember this: The Big Dipper’s handle “arcs to Arcturus and drives a spike to Spica.” In the opposite direction the bowl’s pointer stars point to the large spring constellation Leo, the Lion, almost straight overhead now. Leo’s brightest star, Regulus, is 45 degrees from the nearer pointer star. Leo’s head is facing west (right if you’re facing south) and is shaped like a sickle or backward question mark with Regulus as the question mark’s dot. Between Leo and the southern horizon the sky is rather devoid of bright stars. This spring features two additional delights: the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Brighter than any star, Jupiter is high in the west 20 degrees to the right of Regulus and only two degrees from Cancer’s Beehive star cluster, a subtle but beautiful swarm of stars best seen in binoculars. (The field of view of typical binoculars is about 7 degrees, so Jupiter and the Beehive can be seen together.) Somewhat less bright than Jupiter, Saturn is lower in the west, 40 degrees from Jupiter and 20 degrees above the horizon 2 hours after sunset. The evening sky of spring is also the site of the cosmic baseball field, but we’ll hold that one for another column. SKY CALENDAR. ‘ May 1: The Moon is new. ‘ May 1: May Day, the cross-quarter day celebrating the middle of spring. ‘ May 3 evening: A thin crescent Moon is to the upper right of Taurus’ brightest star, Aldebaran, low in the west soon after sunset, then to the lower right of Saturn the next evening. ‘ May 8 Thursday evening: A larger Moon is above Jupiter. ‘ May 9 Friday evening: The 1st quarter Moon is near Leo’s brightest star, Regulus. ‘ May 13, Tuesday evening: A gibbous Moon is to the left of Virgo’s brightest star, Spica. ‘ May 14, Wednesday morning: Mars is very near Neptune. ‘ May 15, Thursday evening: Full Moon and total lunar eclipse (more on this in the next column) Stargazer appears in this paper every other week. Paul Derrick is an amateur astronomer who lives in Waco. Contact him at 918 N. 30th, Waco, 76707, (254) 753-6920 or pjderrick@aol.com. See the Stargazer Web site at stargazerpaul.com.

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