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Touring the Skies By Jim Bonser (

April 25, 2019
Reinbeck Courier
Ps. 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

It’s May already, and do I have a bad case of astronomy cabin fever! I think I could count the number of clear nights last month on one hand. I managed to get out to my observatory just twice and both times clouds rolled in before I had barely gotten everything uncovered and turned on. So disappointing. I’m hoping May turns out better but one of my farmer friends told me not to get too excited because May is generally one of the rainiest months of the year in Iowa. Well, just in case the clouds do us a favor and clear out occasionally, there are a few things to look forward to this month. Let’s start with the biggest and brightest planet: Jupiter. Jupiter finally returns to prime time (for me) observing, which is evening hours up to midnight. For the first week of May, Jupiter barely qualifies, rising at about 11:30 PM. But things improve each week. On May 8 Jupiter begins to clear the eastern horizon about 11:00 o’clock and will be 10 degrees above the horizon. Things get a little better a week later on the 15th when Jupiter rises at about 10:30. Are you starting to detect a pattern here? After an hour or so Jupiter will be around 12 degrees above the horizon which is still pretty low, but if it’s clear and the air is reasonably steady, Jupiter’s beautiful cloud bands and its four bright moons will be worth looking at even with a small telescope. Not much changes a week later on the 22nd; Jupiter rises around 10 o’clock but because its orbit is at a very slight angle this month, it is still only about 16 degrees above the horizon at midnight. Finally, on the 29th, Jupiter rises at about 9:30 PM and is high enough to view in a telescope and be able to see a little detail. One other thing I want to mention about Jupiter this month is that the central bulge of our Milky Way galaxy will be the backdrop for Jupiter this summer! I am looking forward to taking some great photos of our beautiful galaxy with Jupiter featured right in the middle of those beautiful dark dust lanes. I hope you will give some night time photography a try this year and see what you can do. All it takes is a tripod and camera that can take 15 to 20 second exposures. A fast lens such as a 50mm f1.2 or even better, my favorite camera for Milky Way shots, the Rokinon 14mm f2.8 lens. Will take great pictures at ISO 1600 or even better 3200 if your camera can go that high. If you take some, please share them with me – I’d love to see them. Saturn doesn’t rise this month until after midnight. Mars is visible in the west after sunset about 20 degrees from the horizon in the darkening twilight. Venus is visible in the east at dawn. The scene to the south this month contains several noteworthy constellations. Two of them are relatively easy to spot and one is little more challenging. Are you up for a challenge? Well, to make it easier, let’s first find the two easier ones starting with my favorite springtime constellation: Leo. To find Leo, you will have to wait until the skies have darkened enough after sunset that they are almost black in the southwest – say around 9:30 or 10:00 PM. Face southwest and look up from the horizon about 48 degrees or about halfway between the horizon and straight over your head. You should be able to pick out Leo’s brightest star: Regulus. Regulus is a bright blue-white star and it marks what some call “The backwards question mark” that is really the mane of Leo the lion. This month, it will be tilted slightly down and to the right. Once you have found that, scan back towards the east looking for a big right triangle that points away from the question mark – that would be the lion’s tail. Once you have found these, try to use your imagination to see a ‘stick lion’ lying down looking to the western horizon. To help a little bit, the Moon will be a little to the west of Regulus on May 11th and to the east of Regulus on the 12th. Our second ‘easy’ constellation is Bootes. (Pronounced: Bow-Oh-tease not Booties.) Just turn slightly and face southeast. Look for a very bright pumpkin colored star. It will be just a little higher in the sky than Regulus – about 55 degrees. Bootes is the bottom of a large sugar cone shaped ice cream cone. In May it will be tilted almost parallel to the horizon, but later this summer it will be right side up. Okay now for our hard one: Virgo. Like Bootes, Virgo only has one bright star: Spica. Spica is pretty easy to spot, especially if you use Bootes and the stars of the handle of the Big Dipper to help you. Start by looking overhead for the Big Dipper – you might want to lie down with your feet to the south! Follow the curve of the Dipper’s handle away from the bowl and you will soon come to our new friend: Arcturus. You may remember the phrase, “Arc to Arcturus”. Then continue the arc and you will come to bright Spica. We say, “Arc to Arcturus, then speed on to Spica!” The stars of Virgo are spread between Leo and Bootes and are not very bright. For help, check out: it will help you make a picture of the sky for any night of the year. Clear Skies!



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