Cassini begins Grand Finale at Saturn
This month brings the final truly dark night skies for Scotland until mid-July or later. Our dwindling nights are dominated by Jupiter, bright and unmistakable as it passes about 30° high in our southern evening sky and sinks to the western horizon before dawn. Venus is brighter still but easily overlooked as it hovers low in our brightening eastern dawn twilight. Saturn is also best as a morning planet, though it rises at our south-eastern horizon a few minutes before our May star map times.
Saturn creeps westwards from the constellation Sagittarius into Ophiuchus this month and brightens a little from magnitude 0.3 to 0.1, making it comparable with the brightest stars visible at our map times – Arcturus, Capella and Vega. The ringed planet, though, climbs to only 12° high in the south by the time morning twilight floods our sky, which is too low for crisp telescopic views of its stunning rings. On the morning of the 14th, as Saturn stands only 3° below-right of the Moon, its rotation-squashed globe measures 18 arcseconds in diameter while its rings stretch across 41 arcseconds and have their northern face tipped at 26° to our view.
Saturn’s main moon, Titan, takes 16 days to orbit the planet and is an easy telescopic target on the ninth magnitude. It stands furthest west of the disk (3 arcminutes) on the 3rd and 19th and furthest east on the 11th and 27th.
The Cassini probe is now into the final chapter, its so-called Grand Finale, of its epic exploration of the Saturn system. On 22 April, it made its 127th and last flyby of Titan, while on 26 April it dived for the first time through the gap between the planet and its visible rings, successfully returning data from a region it has never dared to explore before. Cassini’s new orbit sees it make another 21 weekly dives until, come 15 September, its almost-20 years mission ends with a fiery plunge into the Saturnian atmosphere.
The Sun’s northwards progress during May, to within only 1.4° of its most northerly point at the summer solstice, changes the sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh from 05:29/20:52 BST on the 1st to 04:36/21:46 on the 31st. The Moon reaches first quarter on the 3rd, full on the 10th, last quarter on the 19th and new on the 25th.
This crescent Moon on the 1st lies in the west, between the stars Pollux in Gemini and Procyon in Canis Minor, lower to its left, while on the 2nd it is 4° below-left of the Praesepe star cluster in Cancer, best viewed through binoculars. It lies near Regulus in Leo on the 3rd and 4th, and appears only 1.2° above the conspicuous Jupiter on the 7th.
The giant planet lies 10° above-right of Virgo’s leading star Spica and edges 2° to the west-north-west this month, drawing closer to the celebrated double star Porrima whose two equal stars orbit each other every 169 years but appear so close together at present that we need a good telescope to divide them.
Following its opposition on 7 April, Jupiter recedes from 678 million to 724 million km during May, dimming slightly from magnitude -2.4 to -2.2 as its diameter shrinks from 43 to 41 arcseconds. Any telescope should show its changing cloud-banded surface while its four main moons may be glimpsed through binoculars, although sometimes one or more disappear as they transit in front of the disk or are hidden behind it or in its shadow.
Some 30° above and to the left of Jupiter is the orange-red giant star Arcturus in Bootes the Herdsman. At magnitude -0.05, this is (just) the brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere ahead of Capella in Auriga, low in the north-north-west at our map times, and Vega in Lyra, climbing in the east. It is also one of the closer stars to the Sun, but it is only a temporary neighbour for it is speeding by the solar system at 122 km per second at a distance of 36.7 light years. Even so, it takes 800 years to move a Moon’s breadth across our sky. It is also a corner star of a rarely-heralded asterism dubbed the Spring Triangle – the other vertices being marked by Spica and Regulus.
A useful trick for finding Arcturus is to extend a curving line along the handle of the Plough which passes overhead during our spring evenings but is always visible somewhere in our northern sky. That line, still pending, leads to Arcturus and then onwards to Spica. The traditional mnemonic for this is “Arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica” but, given current circumstances, we might amend this to “Arc to Arcturus, jump to Jupiter”.
Venus rises 65 minutes before the Sun on the 1st and climbs to stand 9° high at sunrise. By the 31st, these figures change only a little to 75 minutes and 10°, so it is far from obvious as a morning star, even though it blazes at magnitude -4.5 to -4.3. Through a telescope, it shows a crescent whose sunlit portion increases from 27% to 48% while its diameter shrinks from 38 to 25 arcseconds. Early rises, or insomniacs, can see it left of the waning Moon on the 22nd.
Mercury stands below and left of Venus but remains swamped by our dawn twilight. It is furthest west of the Sun (26°) on the 18th. Still visible, but destined soon to disappear into our evening twilight, is Mars. Shining at a lowly magnitude 1.6, it lies 7° above-right of Aldebaran as the month begins and tracks between the Bull’s horns as Taurus sinks below our north-western horizon in the early evening.
This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on May 1st 2017, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
A quarter-century for the Hubble Space Telescope
Just 25 years ago, scientists worldwide were celebrating the successful launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. We soon learned, though, that its precisely-figured 2.4-metre mirror had been built to the wrong shape, and we had to wait another three years before corrective optics could be installed to correct its blurred vision. Since then, Hubble has been returning research and a gallery of stunning images that have transformed our understanding of the Universe.
Its findings impact on every area of astronomy, and every distance-scale, from the farthest and earliest galaxies to the processes of star formation and images of objects in our solar system in unprecedented detail. It has also been a key player in the discovery that the entire Universe is expanding at an increasing rate because of a mysterious entity dubbed dark energy.
It is now six years since a shuttle visited to service it for the final time, and its instruments will eventually fail. Its orbit is also decaying because of the tiny atmospheric drag at its current altitude of 545 km, and it may spiral to destruction within another decade or so.
However, we expect that Hubble will still be alive when its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, the JWST, is launched, hopefully in 2018. With a segmented 6.5-metre mirror, and working between visible and infrared wavelengths, this should build on Hubble’s legacy. The UK Astronomy Technology Centre at Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory has leading roles in the consortium from Europe and NASA that has built one of the JWST’s three main instruments, the Mid-InfraRed Instrument or MIRI.
As the Sun climbs another 7° higher at noon during May, Edinburgh’s days lengthen by almost two hours, although we lose much more than this of nighttime darkness. On the 1st, the Sun is more than 12° below Edinburgh’s horizon, and the sky effectively dark, for a little more than five hours, but by the month’s end this shrinks to only 32 minutes. More accurately, the sky would be dark for these periods were it not for the moonlight at the start and end of the month.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh vary from 05:30/20:51 BST on the 1st to 04:37/21:45 on the 31st while the Moon is full on the 4th, at last quarter on the 11th, new on the 18th and at first quarter on the 25th.
The conspicuous star Arcturus in Bootes is climbing in the east at nightfall to dominate the high southern sky by our map times although it pales by comparison with the planets Jupiter and Venus which lie further to the west.
Below and right of Arcturus is Virgo and the closest giant cluster of galaxies, the Virgo Cluster. Located some 54 million light years away, and one of Hubble’s earliest targets, it contains up to 2,000 galaxies, more than a dozen of which are visible through small telescopes under a dark sky. Its centre lies roughly midway between the stars Vindemiatrix in Virgo, and Leo’s tail-star Denebola (see map).
Another planet, Saturn, shines at magnitude 0.0 and almost rivals Arcturus in brightness when it reaches opposition at a distance of 1,341 million km on the 23rd. It is then best placed on the meridian in the middle of the night, though it stands only 15° above Edinburgh’s horizon so that telescopic views of its rings and globe, 42 and 18 arcseconds wide respectively, may be hindered by turbulence in our atmosphere.
Currently 1.2° north of the double star Graffias in Scorpius, Saturn creeps westwards into Libra by the day of opposition. The rings have their northern face tilted 24° towards us at present and although this will increase to 26° next year, Saturn itself slides another 2° further south. Catch Saturn to the right of the Moon on the 5th-6th.
This is the best time this year to glimpse Mercury in our evening sky. Until the 11th, it stands 10° or more above the west-north-western horizon forty minutes after sunset before it sinks to set more than two hours later. It dims from magnitude -0.3 on the 1st to 1.0 on the 11th and may be followed through binoculars for just a few more days as it sinks lower and fades to magnitude 1.7 by the 15th. Mercury stands furthest from the Sun (21°) on the 7th and passes around the Sun’s near side at inferior conjunction on the 30th.
The brilliant evening star Venus improves from magnitude -4.1 to -4.3 and is unmistakable in the west at sunset, sinking to set in the north-west after 01:00. From between the Horns of Taurus at present, it tracks eastwards into Gemini to stand 1.7° above-right of the star cluster M35 on the 9th (use binoculars) and end the month 4° to the south of Pollux in Gemini. Venus approaches from 148 million to 113 million km during the period as its gibbous disk swells from 17 to 22 arcseconds and its sunlit portion falls from 67% to 53%.
Jupiter still outshines every star, but is fainter than Venus and stands above and well to its left, their separation in the sky plummeting from 50° on the 1st to 21° on the 31st. Look for Jupiter in the south-west at nightfall at present and much lower in the west by our map times. This month it fades a little from magnitude -2.1 to -1.9 and tracks 3° eastwards to the east of the Praesepe star cluster in Cancer (use binoculars). The planet lies above the crescent Moon and 833 million km away on the 23rd when a telescope shows its cloud-banded disk to be 35 arc seconds across.