Where When How — May/June 2017
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Skywatch - The Night Sky


Summer begins June 21st

Look almost directly overhead as the sky grows dark for a bright star-like object. This is not a star at all, but the largest of all the planets, Jupiter. As the sky grows darker southeast of Jupiter you will see a bright star, although not as bright as Jupiter. This is Spica, a grain of wheat being held in the hand of Virgo, the goddess of the harvest.

Of course, the Sun sets in the west (really more in the northwest at this time of year). So if you know which way the Sun sets, you have an idea of which way is west. If you face west, north is to your right. Face north and look for seven stars that form what is probably the best known of all star groups, the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper is part of Ursa Major, the Great Bear.

Three stars mark the handle and four more the bowl. If you draw a line through the two stars at the end of the bowl and extend the line away from the bowl, you come to the North Star. Having found the North Star, if you did not know which way was North, you would now know.

Go back to the Big Dipper. Draw the line through the same two stars at the end of the bowl, but in the opposite direction. You will come to the bright star Regulus, the heart of Leo, the Lion. Long ago in Egypt, in the summertime, the water in the out-lying areas would dry up and the animals would be forced to come down to the Nile to drink. Since their prey was by the river, naturally, the lions followed the animals down to the river. While, the people lived by the river and they too needed its water. And, as you might expect, the people and the lions did not get along well. People did not have a calendar to mark with look out for the lions, but they did have the sky to keep track of time. Long ago the Sun was in that part of the sky during the summertime when the lions were a problem. So people watched the sky and the Sun. Perhaps this is why this part of the sky became known as a lion.

Go back to the Big Dipper once more. This time use the Dipper’s handle. Follow the arc of the handle away from the Dipper to the bright star Arcturus and then speed on to Spica. Arcturus is the brightest star in Boötes, the Herdsman. Boötes is also known as the bear driver, since he seems to be driving the Great Bear, Ursa Major, across the sky.

As the night goes on, Saturn will climb higher and higher in the eastern sky. Saturn is found east of a bright red star Antares, the heart of Scorpius, the Scorpion. Perhaps you can see the Scorpion’s long curved tail. Between Scorpius and Virgo is an area with no bright stars. These stars were once the claws of the Scorpion, but are now Libra, the Scales.

If you are up early before the Sun rises, a very bright starlike object, the planet Venus, will dominate the eastern sky.

The Eta Aquarids meteor shower reaches its peak the night of May 6-7. These meteors, or shooting stars, are produced by dust particles left behind by the comet Halley. Moonlight will block out many of the fainter meteors but you should be able to see a few of the brighter ones. The best time to look is between midnight and dawn.

On June 21st, Earth’s North Pole will be tilted toward the Sun, and the Sun will reach its northernmost point in the sky directly over the Tropic of Cancer. This is the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of winter in the Southern Hemisphere.

This column is prepared especially for TCI stargazers by DR. THOMAS LESSER, former Senior Lecturer at the American Museum-Hayden Planetarium and a frequent visitor to the Caribbean