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May skies of the Gulf Coast

Rose moon
Sheryl Williams
EAAA member Sheryl Williams shot this photo of the rose moon with a 6” reflector and digital camera about five years ago. Note how in the partial phases, you can see the shape of the earth (a sphere) and its size (the umbra swallows up the moon, only ¼ as large as the earth, with plenty of room to spare. Also note the colors, the bluish leading edge of the shadow due to our ozone layer, and the much redder umbral shadow due to our atmosphere scattering mainly blue light, and letting some of the reds of sunset refract around the limb and reach the fully eclipsed moon.

The two brightest planets sit one moon diameter apart in the dawn sky on May 1. Both are in the same low-power telescope or binocular field. The next evening, the waxing crescent moon joins Mercury and the Pleiades cluster in the northwest after sunset for a fine grouping on May 2, and the first quarter moon is May 7.

The Full moon, the Rose Moon, will indeed turn reddish for the total lunar eclipse visible over the whole western hemisphere on May 15-16. Check our Facebook page for public gaze plans. Locally, the partial eclipse begins at 9:30 p.m. when the full moon moves into the western edge of our shadow. The moon is totally inside our shadow from 10:30 p.m. until midnight on May 16. It is clear of our umbral shadow again by 1 a.m.

On May 22, the last quarter moon passes five degrees south of Saturn in the dawn sky. The waning crescent moon is seven degrees right of the pairing of bright Jupiter and much fainter and redder Mars in the dawn on May 24. The moon is to the lower left of Jupiter on May 25, and the slender crescent moon passes below brilliant Venus on May 26. As the month ends, Mars overtakes Jupiter and as the month began with Venus and Jupiter, passes about a half degree, or a moon diameter below much brighter Jupiter.

The month ends with an observational challenge — discover a new meteor shower! On the night of May 30 and the morning of May 31, the Earth is predicted to move through the debris trail of decomposing Comet Schwassman-Wachmann 3. The radiant for the possible shower will be near the bright star Arcturus in Bootes. The radiant will be high overhead as dawn approaches, with no moon, and if the debris is big enough and abundant enough, a fine meteor shower could erupt. But the debris may be too tiny (faint meteors, observed only by radar echoes) or miss us so no promises!

For a detailed map of northern hemisphere skies, visit skymaps.com.

The winter constellations will soon be swallowed up in the Sun’s glare, but Orion is still visible, with its famed Orion Nebula, M-42, seen below the three stars marking his famed belt. Dominating the southwest is the Dog Star, Sirius, the brightest star of the night sky. When Sirius vanishes into the Sun’s glare in two months, this sets the period as “Dog Days."

The brightest star in the northwest is Capella, distinctively yellow in color. It is a giant star, almost exactly the same temperature as our Sun, but about 100X more luminous. Just south of it are the stellar twins, the Gemini, with Castor closer to Capella, and Pollux closer to the Little Dog Star, Procyon.

Overhead, the Big Dipper rides high. Good scouts know to take its leading pointers north to Polaris, the famed Pole Star. For us, it sits 30 degrees (our latitude) high in the north, while the rotating earth beneath makes all the other celestial bodies spin around it from east to west.

If you drop south from the bowl of the Big Dipper, Leo the Lion rides high. Note the Egyptian Sphinx is based on the shape of this Lion in the sky. The “regal” star Regulus marks the heart of the celestial lion.

Taking the arc in the Dipper’s handle, we look southeast to bright orange Arcturus, the brightest star of spring. Cooler than our yellow Sun, and much poorer in heavy elements, some believe its strange motion reveals it to be an invading star from another smaller galaxy. Arcturus was the first star in the sky where its proper motion across the historic sky was noted, by Edmund Halley. Just east of Arcturus is Corona Borealis, the “northern crown”, a shapely Coronet that Miss America would gladly don, and one of few constellations that look like their name. The bright star in the crown’s center is Gemma, the Gem Star.

Spike south to Spica, the hot blue star in Virgo, then curve to Corvus the Crow, a four-sided grouping. The arms of Virgo harbor the Virgo Supercluster of Galaxies, with thousands of “island universes” in the Spring sky. We are looking away from the place of thickly populated Milky Way, now on the southern horizon, toward the depths of intergalactic space, where even amateur telescopes can spot quasars billions of light-years distant.

To the northeast, Hercules rises, with his body looking like a butterfly. It contains one of the sky’s showpieces, M-13, the globular cluster faintly visible with the naked eye. Find it with binoculars midway on the top left wing of the cosmic butterfly, then take a look with a larger telescope and you will find it resolved into thousands of stars!

The Escambia Amateur Astronomers return to Casino Beach for our Pavilion Stargaze Season on the first quarter moon. Meet us south of the famed Beach Ball Water Tower and bring your smartphone to image the Sun (before sunset with our solar scopes), Moon, and constellations. We have free star charts and will show you what’s up. The gazes, if clear skies permit, will be on Fridays and Saturdays for May 6-7.

We continue our cooperation with the Florida State Parks at Big Lagoon State Park. These gazes are for best imaging of the Milky Way, constellations, and other galaxies. The next dates are May 20-21.

For Okaloosa and Walton Counties, the Northwest Florida Amateur Astronomers will also host public gazes this summer at a variety of venues. On May 6, they will be at the HSU STEM range in Laurel Hill.

For more information on the Escambia Amateur Astronomers, visit our website at eaaa.net.

Dr. John Wayne Wooten has been teaching science since 1970, with a special concentration on astronomy. He received his Doctor of Education in Astronomy from University of Florida in 1979. He was an educator at Pensacola State College since 1974 and University of West Florida since 1984 before retiring in 2017. He still continues to teach distance learning astronomy for Tennessee colleges.