Party Time – Astronomy Style!
So you want to invite some friends over and you need a theme for your party. Why not make it as big as the universe, and take your guests on a view of the cosmos? It’s fun, it’s easy, and you don’t need a degree in the finer points of astrophysics (although that could be a hoot as well). The goal is for everyone to have a good time and not necessarily to earn three college credits in astronomy when the night is done. So let’s get started.
May is the fifth month of the year in the Julian and Gregorian Calendars a month of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. It is named after the Greek goddess, Maia or Roman goddess of fertility, Bona Dea. Old English – Maius, Latin name – Maius mensis – Month of Maia, Old French – Mai. Maia was one of the Pleiades and the mother of Hermes. Maia is the daughter of Atlas and Pleione the Oceanid and is the oldest of the seven Pleiades. Because they were daughters of Atlas, they were also called the Atlantides. For the Romans, it embodied the concept of growth and as her name was thought to be related to the comparative adjective maius, maior “larger, greater”. Convallaria majalis, the Lily of the Valley, is named after it and it is the flower of May in Europe.
It’s usually a very good idea to plan for your stargazing in advance. Mundane things, like when the Sun is rising or setting, become very important for the success of your stargazing adventure.
The Moon is also important, because hunting for dark sky objects will require different preparation than taking a stroll under the full Moon in your Moon garden.
The Sun rises from 7 to 7:30AM throughout the month and sets from around 5:30 to 5:00 PM.
In May, the Sun transits first the zodiacal constellations of the Ram (Aries) and after 14th of May is in Taurus. This means that Scorpius is on the other side of the zodiacal wheel and visible starting after sunset.
The graph above is provided by in-the-sky.org, a great website that has a lot of useful information about celestial objects’s positions. The Moon in this graph is, however, upside down, as you would see it from the Northern Hemisphere.
The Moon is the enemy of the stargazer because it casts too much light at night, unless you specifically wish to see the Moon. The Moon may be useful to cast beautiful silvery moonlight over your Moon garden.
Therefore it is very important that we know when the Moon lights the night sky and from what to what time.
Starting from the West after sunset is Betelgeuse, then in zig-zag to the North is Procyon, the Little Dog’s alpha star. Zig-zagging again and is Sirius, and Adhara, in the Big Dog, and Suhail al Muhlif and Avior in Vela, the beautiful stars of the Southern Cross, the two pointers, Alpha and Beta Centauri then later on in the night after the centre of the Milky Way rises, is Antares and Shaula in Scorpius, Nunki in Sagittarius and last but not least, after midnight, Altair and last but not least, Vega grazing the northern horizon.
Regulus from Leo (which is extremely close to the ecliptic) then Spica, the blue giant in Virgo, Zubenelgenubi, another star grazing the ecliptic and Zubeneschamali just beneath it. Zubenelgenubi means the northern claw and Zubeneschamali the southern claw, alluding to these two stars that have been the claws of Scorpius before they were chopped off and turned into the current constellation of Libra. They are followed by Antares which is the last very bright star visible on the ecliptic before sunrise.
After sunset, on the ecliptic due north is the constellation Leo.
Binoculars come in many shapes and forms, a great size for stargazing is 7 x 50 or 10 x 50. The first number is a measure of power, it means how much these binoculars magnify, in this case the 7 and the 10. The second number is the diameter of the objective (the big lenses at the front) in millimetres, in this case the 50.
We really like binoculars, they are favourite aids to observing the night sky because they are light, you can take them easily with you on trips, they don’t really require assembly and disassembly, no polar alignment, and visually are better than telescopes!
With a tripod attached they are truly magnificent. Comets and some open star clusters are sometimes better observed with binoculars. We have two eyes, so binocular views are more spectacular in many regards than telescopic, because our brains interpret what we see, binoculars give depth of view as they engage both eyes in the process.
There are a few great objects that you could admire in binoculars. On the ecliptic, M44 – the Praesepe is an open cluster in Cancer. Known as the beehive, the open cluster swarms with stars. It’s really fuzzy when you look at it with the naked eye and binoculars reveal a beautiful lace of stars. Praesepes are as far as 577 light years and estimated to be about 730 million years old with an average magnitude of 3.5. Also in Cancer, M37, is another open cluster, one of the oldest known, almost 3.2 billion years.
Close to the area south of the triangle that marks Leo’s hips…M65, M66 and NGC 3628, which will be visible depending on the size of your binoculars they are also known as the “Leo Triplet”. Also in Leo, M105 is an elliptical galaxy. Last but not least M96 another galaxy in Leo lies at about 35 million light years away.
You can get a map and look for all these objects. Or, if everything else fails, simply take your binoculars and swipe the Milky Way from one edge to the other. You might not figure out exactly which objects you are looking at but you would definitely find amazing sights, especially in the region close to Carina. You will find there IC 2602, NGC 3114, NGC 353, NGC 2516 that are all open clusters then in Crux NGC 4755 which is another open cluster, NGC 2451 in Puppis, and IC 2391 in Vela.
Lower down, Omega Centauri, is a globular cluster in Centaurus and in Scorpius, there are the Butterfly Cluster, M7 open cluster and NGC 6231 open cluster.
Southern Beehive NGC 2516, Gem Cluster NGC 3293, Southern Pleiades IC 2602, Wishing Well NGC 3532, Jewel Box NGC 4755, Omicron Velorum IC 2391, Omega Centauri NGC 5139, Alpha Centauri and Acrux, Tarantula NGC 2070.
Join us for a Star Safari every Friday and Saturday in the Wairarapa or learn astronomy online.
If you have questions or for more information