The night sky of May 2012 has some interesting naked-eye phenomena for amateur astronomers.
Here’s how to find your way around the night sky. This is primarily for northern hemisphere sky watchers, roughly from latitudes 25 to 55.
Go to Star Maps to download a star map for May 2012 to help you find the stars, planets, and constellations that I highlight below.
The planets in order from the sun are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto (now considered a dwarf planet). An old mnemonic for remembering their order is “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.”
Venus will be visible for a few hours after sunset in the west above the horizon. Except for the moon, it is the brightest object in the night sky.
Venus will disappear into the sun at the end of the month for about a week. Then it will reappear as a black dot on the face of the Sun. This is called a Venus transit.
On Tuesday evening June 5, 2012, sky watchers in North America can see a Venus transit. This is a rare spectacle! The next Venus transit will be in 105 years in December 2117. The June 2012 Venus transit is the last one anyone alive today will see.
Interestingly, Venus rotates about its axis in the opposite direction from that of most planets in the Solar System. This fact creates insuperable difficulties for those who believe in an evolutionary development of the Solar System.
But it’s not problematic for those who believe the Almighty spoke the worlds into existence and created the universe with tremendous diversity, beauty, and complexity.
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host…For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.
Look for Mars in the southwest sky. It will have a reddish tinge and will be visible until the early morning hours. Only the moon, Venus, and Jupiter are brighter in the night sky.
If you have a telescope, you can see the polar ice caps on Mars. Look for a thin band of white along the outer edge of Mars – you’re looking at a huge swath of ice, more than enough ice to cool your house all summer long if you could get it.
Look for Saturn high in the southern sky a little east of Mars. Saturn is just above the star Spica (see below for how to locate Spica). Saturn is the second largest planet in the Solar System after Jupiter. If you have a telescope, you can see Saturn’s rings.
Saturn has 9 main rings and 62 moons. The largest moon Titan is larger than Mercury and has its own atmosphere.
Groups of stars that orbit a common center are called galaxies. Astronomers say there are over 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe, and each one is different. Our Milky Way galaxy is a barred spiral galaxy. There are other barred spiral galaxies, but no two are the same.
Galaxies have from 10 million stars in dwarf galaxies to over 100 trillion stars in giant galaxies. The Milky Way has 200-400 billion stars.
Thus the number of stars in the universe is incomprehensibly enormous. And that’s just the stars we know about. We don’t know about the stars we don’t know about. There could be many times more unknown stars than known stars.
Moreover, the Bible seems to imply that each star is unique when it says, “star differs from star in glory” (1 Cor 15:41).
Yet the Almighty knows the exact count of the stars, knows each by specific name, and due to the greatness of His might and the strength of His power, none are missing. (Psalm 147:4; Isaiah 40:26)
The most famous constellation of all is the Big Dipper. It can be used to find North at night via the North Star. The Big Dipper will be directly overhead this month. Use the 2 “pointer stars” at the end of the dipper bowl to find Polaris, the North Star, by extending an imaginary line from the star at the bottom of the bowl through the one at the top to reach Polaris (see Star Map). When you look at Polaris you are facing due north.
Polaris is also at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper constellation.
Directly north just above the horizon is a W-shaped constellation called Cassiopeia. The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia are always on opposite sites of Polaris. The middle of Cassiopeia’s W points toward Polaris. This gives an alternative way to find north, especially when the Big Dipper is low on the horizon or obscured by trees or clouds.
Follow the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle to the southeast to find the bright star Arcturus (Arc to Arcturus). Arcturus, in the constellation Boötis, is the 3rd brightest individual star in the night sky after Sirius and Canopus.
“Spike” south from Arcturus to Spica near Saturn (Spike to Spica). Spica is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. Virgo is the 2nd largest constellation and is high in the southern sky in May 2012.
The constellation Lyra (Harp), sometimes called King David’s Harp, is one of the original 48 constellations listed by the Greek astronomer, mathematician, and geographer Ptolemy (AD 90-168). It’s one of the 88 constellations recognized today by the International Astronomical Union.
Lyra consists of an equilateral triangle sharing a vertex with a parallelogram or diamond.
To find Lyra, first look for Vega, one of the brightest stars in the night sky. Vega is visible throughout the night in the northeastern sky.
Vega, Deneb, and Altair form the Summer Triangle. Vega is the brightest of the 3 stars and the Vega-Altair leg is the longest of the 3 triangle legs. The Summer Triangle is almost directly overhead during summer months in mid-northern latitudes.
Vega is at the extreme tip of Lyra in the triangle piece. It’s a star about twice the size of the Sun about 25 light-years from earth. A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, about 6 trillion miles. Thus Vega is about 150,000,000,000,000 miles from earth. The Vega light we see this month left Vega about May 1987, 25 years ago.
The Northern Cross is part of the Cygnus (Swan) constellation just above the northeast horizon. Deneb, one of the 3 vertices of the Summer Triangle, is at the head of the Northern Cross. It’s the brightest star in Cygnus.
Consider the enormous energy any single one of these stars produces. Multiply it by some 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars that the Almighty energizes and upholds by the Word of His power (Hebrews 1:3; Col 1:17). Such thoughts should generate worship of the One who created, sustains, and rules the universe.
Soli Deo Gloria.
Read the prequel about the Supermoon of May 5:
Supermoons & the Titanic
Read the sequel about a solar eclipse due May 20:
©William T. Pelletier, Ph.D.
“contending earnestly for the faith” (Jude 1:3)
Wednesday May 9, 2012 A.D.
Read my May 2012 newspaper column: Dragons
Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these stars, the One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name. Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power not one of them is missing. (Isaiah 40:26)