The Planets

The Planets

MERCURY is visible low in the western sky at sunset early in the month. By May 23rd, however, this dried up prune of a planet reaches inferior conjunction (placing himself neatly between Earth and Sun) and cannot be seen.

VENUS becomes visible at the end of the month, low in the western sky after sundown. The lovely lady is setting among the magnificent winter constellations. Look for her close by the great god Jupiter on May 22-23, at -3.9 magnitude (that's bright!) to Jupiter's -2.0. A pretty sight indeed on a warm spring evening.

MARS is terrifically disappointed, having expected a visit from us this year. We have lost contact with both of the Soviet spacecraft that were due to land on Mars' 2 little moons. There seems to be no hope at this point that contact will be restored. Meanwhile, Mars consoles himself with a visit to the twins Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini. Look for the three of them well up in the western sky at sunset, setting together about 3 hours later.

JUPITER continues to flirt with the stars of Taurus, passing 5 degrees above the red star Aldebaran (God's Eye, according to the Hebrews) on May 4th. Look for this low in the west just after sunset. Take one last look for the season at these fellows. By the end of the month, Jupiter and his pals are too close to the Sun to be seen, but by July will be back in morning skies.

SATURN, URANUS and NEPTUNE manage to boot a couple of friends (Mars and Jupiter) off the western edge of the world at sundown, just as they get ready to rise themselves over the eastern edge of the horizon. Saturn remains among the stars of the teapot (Sagittarius), just where he's been for the last few years, and Uranus and Neptune trail right along with him. A waning gibbous Moon barges past the lot of them on the 23rd-24th. Neptune, meanwhile, gets ready for his close encounter from the Voyager 2 spacecraft, due to occur at 1 a.m. EDT on 25 August. Ten years ago, Voyager sailed past Jupiter. Eight years ago the spacecraft reached Saturn, and just three years ago visited Uranus.

After the spacecraft's encounter with Neptune, Voyager 2 will join its twin Voyager 1 and float into the outer reaches of space. Last summer, Voyager's trajectory was corrected by NASA engineers, assisted by observational data supplied by the Naval Observatory.

PLUTO (I still consider Pluto to be a planet) does something of significance for a change, reaching opposition on May 4th. It means he'll rise in the east just as the Sun goes down, and remain in the nighttime sky until dawn. Haul out a decent sized telescope (and a decent sky chart) and see if you can spot him on his heavenly perch in Virgo.

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