This is the Griffith Observatory Sky Report through May 4th, 2016. Here’s what’s happening in the skies of southern California.
As darkness falls, look for the seven bright stars of the Big Dipper high in the northern sky. The Big Dipper is useful in finding the cardinal directions and in identifying other stars in different parts of the sky. To find the Big Dipper, face north and look up three-quarters of the distance between the horizon and the overhead point, or zenith. The four stars of the dipper’s bowl are on the left or western side of the figure, with the open side of the bowl facing downward. The three stars of the dipper’s bent handle are on the eastern side of the bowl, extending to the right.
The brightest object in the early evening sky is not a star, but is the planet Jupiter, gleaming high in the south in the constellation Leo the Lion. The largest four of Jupiter’s many moons are visible through steadily held binoculars, while a telescope is needed to see Jupiter’s cloudy face. Jupiter’s famous oval storm, the Great Red Spot, will be visible to west coast observers at 9:00 p.m. on Friday, April 29th, Sunday, May 1st, and Tuesday, May 3rd. Jupiter is featured through Griffith Observatory’s public telescopes.
The red planet Mars is noticeable to the upper right of the golden planet Saturn, both planets showing above the southeast horizon by 10:30 p.m. Mars is in the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion and appears above the red star Antares, the brightest star of Scorpius. The Greek name Antares means the “rival” or “equal” of Ares. Ares is the Greek equivalent of the Roman God of War, Mars, and is a reference to the similarity in color between the planet Mars and the star. Mars, a month away from its 46 million-mile “close approach” to Earth, now appears much brighter than Antares. Saturn is in the constellation Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer. Mars and Saturn appear highest in the south at 2:45 a.m., and move together to the southwest sky by dawn.
The time that the waning moon rises advances 12:26 a.m. on Thursday the 28th to 4:40 a.m. on Wednesday the 6th. Its phase changes from gibbous to last quarter on the 29th, and is crescent on following mornings before the new moon on May 6th.
The presence of only weak moonlight is favorable for this year’s eta Aquariid meteor shower. Although the peak of the shower is not expected until May 5th, the numbers of meteors produced by the shower is not expected to change much between the mornings of the 3rd and the 6th. From the United States, about 10 eta Aquariids per hour are expected to be seen by observers far from urban light pollution on those three mornings, while up to one per minute can be seen on the same mornings from the southern hemisphere. The meteors are named for the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer from which they seem to stream. The meteors may be observed between 3:00 a.m. and 4:25 a.m., the start of dawn. They are pieces shed centuries ago by the famous comet Halley. Comet Halley’s next visit is still 45 years away.
Free views of the sun during the day and of the moon, planets, and other celestial objects at night are available to the public in clear weather through Griffith Observatory’s telescopes from Tuesday through Sunday, before 9:30 p.m. Check our website for the schedule. The next free public star party on the grounds of Griffith Observatory, hosted by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society, the Sidewalk Astronomers, and the Planetary Society, will take place on Saturday, May 14th.
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From Griffith Observatory, I’m Anthony Cook and I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org