Twinkle, Twinkle

Take a look at the night sky this month, and you’ll see lots of amazing things…

Venus is a very bright object in our sky that’s always easy to spot. It’s often mistaken for things like planes or even the mythical UFO. In May, Venus will be particularly bright, shining at its maximum magnitude of 4.7.

Mars is visible through a telescope, where it shows up as a large red dot. If there’s a good enough view, you can even see the Martian polar ice caps. Depending on your telescope, those ice caps may look like just a thin band of white along the outer edge of the globe, but it’s pretty neat to know that you’re looking at a gigantic swath of ice.

Saturn: If you’ve got a telescope, point it toward Saturn — if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to make out its rings. The planet is one of the favorite targets of amateur astronomers.

Moon: The first weekend in May (this Saturday!) will reward celestial enthusiasts with a celestial double-feature…the biggest full Moon of 2012 AND the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. Coinciding with the Moon’s perigree – — aka its closest proximity to Earth — this super bright and extra-large full Moon will be big and beautiful enough to qualify as a supermoon.

While you can see the Moon perfectly well with your naked eye, if you point your telescope at it, you can spot some amazing things. The large impact crater in the southern part of the moon, called Tycho, features a notable ray system that spreads out in all directions. If you look at the edges of the moon through a telescope, you’ll likely be able to see mountains (actually the rims of craters) pushing up past the encroaching darkness.

The Constellation Lyra: As legend has it, the god of music and knowledge, Apollo, gave the famed Greek musician Orpheus a beautiful lyre to play. After tragedy struck his wife, Orpheus became inconsolable. All the women around him tried to make him happy again, but none could. The women, upset over Orpheus’s continued depression, tore him apart and threw his lyre into the River Herbus. It is there that Apollo snatched the lyre out of the water and put it in a place of honor among the stars.

Look for the second brightest star in the northern hemisphere, Vega, and you’ve found the tip of the constellation Lyra. Some 23 light years away from Earth, Vega is about two times as massive as our Sun. In the popular 1990s movie Contact, Vega is the source of the alien signal picked up by Jodie Foster that eventually leads to her interstellar journey.

Below Vega, you’ll see four other stars that make up the diamond-shaped pattern of Lyra, as well as one star to the left of Vega that forms the other side of the top of the mythological instrument. Picture a series of enormous harp strings strung throughout the constellation, and you’ve got what the Greeks envisioned ages of years ago.

Eclipse: When the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun in the right way, a solar eclipse happens. There are four different types of solar eclipses. The most recognizable is the total eclipse, where the moon completely blocks out the sun, leaving only the spectacular solar corona visible. A partial eclipse occurs when the sun is only somewhat obscured by the Moon, which can often be seen alongside total eclipses. The annular eclipse, which is what we’ll see on May 20, happens when the Moon appears slightly smaller than the Sun. A hybrid eclipse is when the eclipse flips between a total eclipse and an annular eclipse.

Throughout the late afternoon on Sunday, May 20, you’ll be able to see the Moon pass in front of the Sun to various degrees, depending on where you live in the country. Unfortunately for those of you on the east coast, you won’t be able to see anything. On the west coast, however, you’ll get a truly amazing view.

If you can see it from the best vantage point possible, the annular eclipse will peak when the Sun forms just a small ring around the Moon. The last time a total or annular solar eclipse happened across the United States was in 1994, so get ready to watch this amazing event!

Be sure you’re watching the solar eclipse safely. If you look directly at it, you risk permanent eye damage. Look for safety tips online on how to view a solar eclipse or get a pair of specialized eclipse glasses.

Apps: Star Walk (iPad or iPhone users), Sky Map for Android users – are fun, interactive maps that show you what you’re seeing as you point your phone or tablet at the night sky.

Information gathered from: tecca.com and huffingtonpost.com

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