By David Ward
A sure sign of spring for stargazers is the sight of the Big Dipper swinging up into the northeastern sky on an evening in May. If you are ever lost at night and it is too dark to see your GPS, use the pointer stars at the end of the bowl of the dipper to find Polaris, the North Star. The Big Dipper can be used to point out other stars as well. Follow the arc of the handle to locate the bright star Arcturus to the south.
Arcturus is the fourth-brightest star in the entire sky, so it is rather hard to miss, especially with its distinctive orange color. Look for a large kite-shaped configuration of dimmer stars extending north of Arcturus. They depict the constellation of Bootes, the herdsman, who was the son of Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture. Bootes invented the plow and for that mediocre achievement he was placed in the sky as a reward.
Arcturus is a totally awesome star and one of my favorites. It was born several billion years before our own sun was even a twinkle in the Milky Way’s eye in an entirely different galaxy. That galaxy got sucked into our own Milky Way by a lot of gravity. Now Arcturus is flying right across our back yard just when consciousness on our little planet has developed to the point where we can look up at it and recognize it for what it is. Arcturus will not be around for long so catch it while you can. In another million years or so it will be out of sight!
May is a great month to look for planets with four of the five visible ones on display. Starting low in the northwest, look for the elusive Mercury in the deepening twilight just above where the sun went down. It will be highest in the sky on May 6, and by mid month it will have dropped out of sight into the sunset glare.
Mercury is the Roman name for the messenger god, but he was really a multi-purpose guy being the patron saint of lawyers, con artists and thieves (do I see a pattern here?), among other things. Part of his job description was escorting the souls of the newly dead to the underworld and carrying dreams from the Valley of Somnus, wherever that was, to sleeping humans. Back in those days, if you could not sleep at night, forget about counting sheep, you just prayed to Mercury.
Mercury’s parents were Jupiter, king of the gods, and Maia, one of the beautiful Seven Sisters of the Pleiades. According to some legends, our month of May is named for his mother and the big Roman festival and potluck honoring Mercury was held on May 15, making May a great time to see if you can spot this seldom seen little world.
Higher in the western sky look for the dazzling planet Venus, named for the Roman goddess of love and beauty. Venus is swinging around closer and closer to us and is getting so bright you might want to wear sunglasses while looking for her (just kidding). Her Greek name was Aphrodite, which means sea foam, and according to legend she was born from the sea. In art pieces she is often depicted standing in a clamshell to honor her birthplace.
Higher still, another bright, easy-to-spot planet shines down on us. This one is Jupiter, king of the gods. His Greek name was Zeus and he was famous for deadly thunderbolts and his romantic escapades, mostly with Earth women. Even a small, cheap telescope from one of those places that always has low prices will give you a great view of Jupiter and its four largest moons.
Galileo was the first to see those moons in 1609, but they were named by a contemporary of his, Simon
Marius, immortalizing four lovers of Jupiter. Io, Callisto and Europa were three lovely women from ancient Greece and Ganymede was a handsome, dashing young man from Troy. Now they revolve around the giant planet forever, living proof of all that questionable activity going on at Mount Olympus.
The next planet visible is Saturn, the Roman version of the ancient Greek god of time, Cronus. Look for him low in the southeast later in the evening, prominently displayed near the head of Scorpius the scorpion. Your cheap telescope will reveal Saturn’s spectacular rings and its largest moon Titan.
I will be at Sun Mountain Lodge several times this summer pointing out all the amazing celestial objects. Check the lodge or the paper for dates. I will have an expensive telescope or two with me, not any low-cost models.