Stargazing in the Manzanos
The Albuquerque Astronomical Society, the Sandia Ranger District, and the Friends of Tijeras Pueblo are cosponsoring the first 2004 program of free public stargazing in the Manzanos on Saturday, May 8, at Oak Flat Picnic Area.
The dark skies of the East Mountains and the large telescopes of TAAS astronomers allow for great views of planets, as well as numerous deep-sky galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters not usually visible near the glare of city lights.
Observation begins at sunset, weather permitting, and is suitable for all ages. Picnic facilities are available for those who would like to come early, and adjacent parking is available. No alcoholic beverages or pets are allowed in the telescope-viewing area.
To get there, take NM Highway 337 nine miles south of Tijeras, and follow the signs to Oak Flat and Juniper Loop. For information and a map, visit www.taas.org or call 254-TAAS.
Night SkyóMay is comet month
To professional astronomers, comets are everywhere. In any given night, there could be half a dozen to a dozen comets seen through their telescopes. Comets bright enough to see without big telescopes are relatively rare, perhaps appearing on an average of one or two every ten to fifteen years. Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 was the last spectacular naked-eye comet.
Now, we may have the chance to see two and possibly three comets during the month of May. From late May into early June, both comets LINEAR and NEAT may be visible simultaneously in the evening sky. The newest comet, named Bradfield, was first spotted on March 23 by William Bradfield of Yankalilla, in south Australia, and is now rounding the Sun.
Northern observers might catch a fleeting glimpse of LINEAR in the brightening dawn sky the end of April or very beginning of May. After that, LINEAR will be moving too far to the south to be visible from northern latitudes. In the final days of May and at the very beginning of June, there is a possibility that observers in the northern hemisphere will again have a chance to sight comet LINEAR very low near the southwest horizon as darkness falls. But unless the comet ends up brighter than is expected now, it wonít be an easy task.
Comet NEAT has been a southern hemisphere object since its discovery in August 2001. By the end of April, this comet will begin to become accessible as an evening object for those in the northern hemisphere. During the first week of May, most northern observers will anxiously be awaiting darkness to fall, straining for clear, unobstructed views toward the southwest horizon for their first sighting of comet NEAT. Probably the first good opportunity to take a look will come on the evening of May 5, approximately an hour after sunset. Look low in the southwest for blue-white Sirius, the Dog Star; itís the brightest star in the night sky. Comet NEAT should be hovering about ten degrees to the left of Sirius (your clinched fist, held at armís length, is roughly equal to ten degrees). On May 6, NEAT will be passing closest to the Earth, just under thirty million miles away. In the nights that follow, comet NEAT will be getting progressively higher up in the southwest sky and, correspondingly, easier to see. On May 15, the comet will reach its closest point to the Sun, just over eighty-nine million miles away. It should then fade rapidly from view as it moves away from both Sun and Earth, moving into Ursa Major by monthís end.
Comet Bradfield will ultimately emerge in the morning sky for observers in mid-northern latitudes during the final week of April. Beginning April 23, watchers should concentrate on the east-northeast horizon beginning about ninety minutes before sunrise. Binoculars will aid observers in sighting comet Bradfield, as well as any tail that might appear to protrude upwards from the horizon.
From head to tail, Hydra is about eighty-six degrees in length. That's equivalent to 172 full moons side by side. During the month of May, this constellation stretches across the southern horizon.
Hydra, the female water snake, is not very bright. Its brightest star, Alphard, meaning "lonely one," is a second-magnitude orange giant lying eighty-nine light-years away from Earth. The head of Hydra forms a distinctive boxy five-star circlet that is easy to see. From there, you can trace the entire snake from star to star with your eyes or binoculars. Hydra wends its way south and east, below the belly of Leo the Lion, nearly touching Crater the Cup, stretching past Corvus the Crow, and finally terminating southeast of the star Spica in Virgo the Virgin.
One of the Hercules legends tells how he killed a multi-headed serpent known as the Hydra. Killing the Hydra was his second labor. The Hydra lived in the murky waters of the swamps near a place called Lerna. This monstrous serpent was not an easy prey: it attacked with poisonous venom and one of its heads was immortal. Hercules lured the creature from the safety of its den by shooting flaming arrows at it. Once the Hydra emerged, Hercules seized it. The monster was not so easily overcome, though, for it wound one of its coils around Hercules's foot and made it impossible for the hero to escape. With his club, Hercules attacked the many heads of the Hydra, but as soon as he smashed one head, two more would burst forth in its place! Hercules finally had the better of the beast. Once he removed and destroyed the eight mortal heads, he chopped off the ninth, immortal head. This head he buried at the side of the road leading from Lerna to Elaeus, and for good measure, he covered it with a heavy rock. Perhaps thatís why when the constellation of Hercules stands triumphantly overhead on summer evenings, the tail of the constellation Hydra is slithering out of sight below the southwest horizon.
On evening of May 20, look for the waxing Moon to the lower right of Venus. The thin crescent should make a spectacular sight.
The crescent Moon will be just above Mars and Saturn on May 22.
On May 24, Mars and Saturn will be in conjunction, side by side in the night sky, with Venus to the lower left of them.
Jupiter and the Moon will be separated by only six degrees on May 26.
The full Moon occurs on May 4 and there will be a lunar eclipse for Europeans that evening.
The new Moon is on May 19.