Charles Messier and the Four Planets in the Evening Sky

With May here it is a good reminder that we only have, at best, five weeks of celestial observation left.

Recently, I have dedicated much of my time to Comet PanSTARRS and its travels through the Yukon’s skies. It has been an amazing journey, viewing this little cosmic snowball.

Looking forward, the next great cosmic adventure is two fold. The first part is the planet Saturn, which will be with us, and the second part is the Messier Marathon. All this is happening in the same region of the night sky.

The Messier Marathon is named after Charles “the ferret of comets” Messier, a French astronomer in the 1750s who pursued comets. Apparently comets were all the rage at the time.

Messier kept running into what he referred to as comet masqueraders, which we now know as galaxies, nebula and star clusters. To keep from mistaking the masqueraders with actual comets, he kept a numbered list of all these imposters.

Messier’s list totaled 103 space objects. A few other additions bring the list to 109 or 110.

Those who live down south can see all the Messier objects in a single evening, but we cannot. Still, most are bright, easily found, and several dozen can be seen in a single evening.

A typical marathon starts in early evening as twilight picks off the last of the winters constellations like Orion. By midnight you are deep into the Virgo super cluster of galaxies, and then finally into the summer constellations of Cygnus and Hercules. In all, it takes five to six hours, but makes for a fabulous observing session.

Many of the Messier objects are visible in binoculars and a few are visible to the unaided eye.

May also brings planets aplenty. Venus is now coming out of the Sun’s glare and will be visible in the evening. On May 24, 26, 28, and 30 Venus, Mercury and Jupiter form a tight grouping low in the early evening western sky.

This will be an awesome view in binoculars and will make for an excellent photo opportunity. Jupiter is now slipping lower into the horizon earlier each evening.

May is the best time for observing Saturn. This ringed gas giant can be found a few hours after sunset in the southeastern evening sky. By midnight it is at its highest, presenting the best view.

To the unaided eye Saturn looks like a bright star and in binoculars it looks like a mini UFO. A telescope, however, reveals its treasures: rings, shadows and cloud bands. Even in a modest spotting scope at 50 X magnification the rings can be seen.

At 300 X magnification on a clear night you can see three distinct ring systems, cloud bands on the planet and even the shadow of the rings in the planet below. Jaw dropping.

Take some time and head outside and see for yourself.

Yukon Sky Highlights: 

May 2nd Last Quarter Moon.

May 5th Before dawn keep an eye out for meteors from the

Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower.

May 9th New Moon.

May 12th Low in the evening western sky, Jupiter and the crescent moon are only 6 degrees apart, a nice photo opportunity.

May 18th First Quarter moon.

May 21st The moon is 2 degrees away from the bright star Spica in the constellation of Virgo in the evening sky.

May 22nd In the evening sky you will find the moon 4 degrees below Saturn.

May 24th Low in the western sky at sunset Venus and Mercury are a mere 1.4 degrees apart. Great in binoculars and even better in a small refractors or spotting scopes.

May 26th Low in the west at sunset Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury form

A tight 2-degree triangle, making for a premium viewing and photo opportunity.

May 27th & 28th Low in the west at sunset Jupiter and Venus are only 1 degree apart. A great view in binoculars and telescopes and an excellent photo opportunity.

May 31st Last Quarter Moon.

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