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Wednesday 25 May 2016  •   19 Hawthorn Moon 2016

Viewing the night sky in Hawthorn Moon 2016

7 May - 4 June 2016

Map of night sky at full moon: 21 May, 21:15 UTC
Northern hemisphere perspective, aligned on the ecliptic. Morning sky to the left, evening to the right.

night sky map for Hawthorn Moon 2016

Although Venus is behind the sun, there’s a lot happening with the other planets.

Mercury moves across the sun on 9 May. The transit begins at 12:12 BST (11:12 UT) and ends at 19:42 (18:42 UT), and is visible for all of that time from Western Europe, South America and eastern North America. Elsewhere in the world, except for Australasia and far E and SE Asia, some of the transit will be visible. The best way to see it is to project an image of the sun on to white card through a telescope or binoculars. Use a mask around the telescope or binoculars to create a bigger shadow on the card. Do not look directly at the sun through any optical equipment unless it is specifically designed for you to do so. It is safe to use mylar eclipse glasses (though check for damage first), and you should be able to see Mercury through them, but it will appear as quite a small dot. The next transit of Mercury is in November 2019, and the one after that is in November 2032. By the end of the lunar month, Mercury moves into the morning sky, well seen from the southern hemisphere, but from the north, it is still very low in the east when the sun rises. On 3 June, the very old crescent moon is nearby, and indeed passes in front of Mercury (occults it) as seen from southern Africa during daylight, and parts of the South Atlantic before sunrise.

There are three very bright planets in the evening sky, a wonderful spectacle.

Both Mars and Saturn, close in the sky, come to opposition and maximum brightness this month, and shine together prominently all night. Mars’ opposition is on 22 May, the day the full moon is near it and Saturn. At this close pass to Earth, Mars is 76.2 million km, or 4.24 light minutes away. Note that Mars will be considerably closer and brighter at its next opposition in July 2018 (oppositions in or near August occur when Mars is near perihelion, and Mars has a relatively eccentric orbit). On 28 May, with Earth overtaking on the inside, Mars is seen to move back into the constellation Libra and, for the moment, away from Saturn.

Saturn is at opposition on 3 June, and it comes as close as 1349 million kilometres or 75 light minutes. It’s still a couple of years before Saturn’s northern summer solstice and, with Earth and the Sun well north of Saturn’s equator, the rings are on brilliant display if you look through good binoculars or a telescope.

Jupiter, round to the west from Mars and Saturn, in the south of Leo, is (just) the brightest of the three on view. Night after night, all three bright planets adorn our skies. Watch as they gradually move in relation to each other. On 9 May, with opposition well past, Jupiter stops moving slowly westwards through the stars, and turns back towards the east. The moon is near Jupiter on 14 & 15 May.

The month ahead: Oak Moon 2016

5 June - 4 July 2016

Map of night sky at full moon: 20 June, 11:02 UTC
Northern hemisphere perspective, aligned on the ecliptic. Morning sky to the left, evening to the right.

night sky map for Oak Moon 2016

On 5 June, Mercury reaches 24.18°W of the sun in the eastern morning sky, a great view from the southern hemisphere, but hard to see from the north, where it is very low down.

Venus is behind the sun, but Jupiter, Mars and Saturn are still very bright in the evening sky, and provide a wonderful spectacle for sky watchers all month.

Jupiter is in the south of Leo, and sets around midnight. The moon is nearby on 11 June. The spacecraft Juno is due to arrive at Jupiter on 4 July to begin over a year of detailed observations.

Mars is in Libra. Over the night of 29/30 June, with its close encounter with Earth well past, Mars halts its westward journey among the stars, and moves back eastwards again, on a slightly more southerly course.

Saturn is in Ophiuchus, where it is all year, and still moving slowly westwards. It is considerably brighter than Antares, the great red star once known as the heart of the Scorpion. Both Mars and Saturn set in the early hours. The moon is near Mars on 17 June, and 18 June for Saturn.

On 6 June, on its way back westwards through the stars, the very faint Pluto (magnitude 14.1) passes 2.5 minutes of arc south of the reasonably bright star Albaldah or Pi Sagittarii (magnitude 2.87).

William Morris
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