This month Venus and Mercury grace the west-northwest sky over Bear Mountain an hour past sunset. Elusive Mercury will be visible a little less than 10 degrees above the horizon early in the month – also at the end of the Salish Walk of the Planets over Bear Mountain. You can measure 10 degrees by holding your outstretched clenched fist against the sky. Bright Venus is easy to see another 20 degrees above Mercury.
The giant planets Jupiter and Saturn rule the sky this month. Here’s where and when to look.
Jupiter, the largest and brightest of our solar system’s planets has been visible for many months. If you haven’t looked at Jupiter through a telescope, you’re in for a real treat. Look west-northwest again towards Bear Mountain and you’ll find Jupiter to the upper left of bright Venus. From May 20-24 the moon passes from right to left below and between these two giants.
You’ll get great views of Jupiter’s colourful cloud bands and its four largest moons, discovered over 400 years ago by Galileo. You can see both the cloud bands and the moons using most binoculars and telescopes of any size.
NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which launched Aug. 11, 2011, has travelled over one and a half billion miles, and has another 200 million miles to go before entering Jupiter’s orbit on July 4, 2016.
Next up, Saturn, finally visible in the night skies before midnight.
Saturn reaches opposition on May 22 – when the planet is visible all night long. It rises at sunset in the southeast over Bellingham and sets at dawn in the northwest over Bear Mountain. This year, the majestic rings are open – which means they’re tilted toward Earth — more than 24 degrees compared to the edgewise view we had in 2009.
At this angle, the rings reflect more light toward Earth and increase the brightness of Saturn. Through a telescope, you may be able to see colour differences and faint bands the colour of cream and butterscotch.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, in orbit around Saturn since 2004, has four close encounters with Titan, two with Dione, and three with the geyser-spewing moon Enceladus this year. We are all excited about the “Search for Life” missions to Enceladus and Titan over the next few years.
And as part of the planning for the “Search for Life”, in 2016 and 2017 Cassini will fly up and over the north and south poles of Saturn and dive in between the innermost of the planet’s rings – the D ring – and the upper atmosphere of Saturn itself.
Jane Houston-Jones asks me to remind her Oak Bay followers that you can learn all about the Cassini mission at Saturn.nasa.gov. And you can learn about all of NASA’s missions, including Juno, at www.nasa.gov.
Dark skies to all friends of Cattle Point Star Park.
Summary is from the transcript of “What’s Up In May 2015” by NASA announcer and astronomer Jane Houston Jones with specific permission for localization to Cattle Point Urban Star Park and the Oak Bay News. Bill Smith is a volunteer at Cattle Point Dark Sky Urban Star Park.