A small, dim comet was discovered in February 2004, which has been orbiting the sun about every five years. Astronomers have determined that Earth is on a collision course with the dusty debris trails shed by this comet, designated 209P/LINEAR.
A new meteor shower could result, raining down from 100 to 400 meteors per hour, and potentially reaching “meteor storm” levels of 1,000 per hour. This is because all the trails ejected by 209/LINEAR between 1803 and 1924 fall in the Earth’s path this May, with the peak projected for May 24. While some scientists suggest predictions may be a bit overstated, it may well be worth staying up to scout the midnight sky.
Another, more predictable shower peaks on May 6, before dawn. The Eta Aquariids have a somewhat broad maximum, so you may watch it for several days around the peak. The hour or two before dawn usually offers the most Eta Aquariid meteors, with 10 to 20 meteors per hour visible in a dark sky.
Jupiter sets at 1:25 a.m. on Thursday, followed by Mars at 5:25 a.m. Venus rises at 4:49 a.m. before Saturn sets at 7:11 a.m. Look for the waxing crescent moon and Jupiter in Gemini on May 4; Mars and the waxing gibbous moon in Virgo on May 11; and on May 14, Saturn and the full moon together in Libra.
Once again Jupiter and the waxing crescent moon appear together in Gemini on May 31. This is also a good night to spot Mercury at the feet of the Gemini twins on the west-northwest horizon about 10 p.m.
At 5 a.m. on May 16, Venus and Uranus are separated by only 2 degrees. With Venus in the center of the field of a pair of 7 x 50 binoculars, Uranus is directly above it.
In May, Mars lies about 2 degrees south of the double star Porrima. The two stars shine at magnitude 3.65 and 3.56. In 1990 amateur astronomers could easily distinguish the two stars in a small telescope, but as they rotate around each other, their apparent distance apart now requires a larger telescope. Not until 2020 will a small telescope be sufficient to view both stars.
Q: I’ve read that a majority of Americans don’t believe in the Big Bang even though 99.9 percent of members of the National Academy of Sciences do. Why do you think this is? — W.K., Canton
A: This is only conjecture on my part, but I believe there are a number of reasons.
Primarily, for a long time, astronomy has not been a mandatory part of the standard curriculum. With the night sky all but invisible to most Americans due to light pollution, the stars and planets remain obscure, and an event that occurred 14 billion years ago, even more so.
Secondly, the idea of a “scientific theory” is not well understood. One may hear “Oh, it’s just a theory.” However, in the discipline of science, a theory is “a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses [and] are understandings that develop from extensive observation, experimentation, and creative reflection.” So says the National Academy of Sciences.
And lastly, as the Chinese poet Zhou Shuren said, “Though science has given us many marvels, it has also spoiled many of our pleasant dreams.”
The Hoover-Price Planetarium is presenting The Universe at Large. Along with the current sky, we will be presenting and updating material to reflect new discoveries, astronomical events and NASA’s ventures. This format provides us with flexibility to respond to concerns and questions.
The program will be shown at 1 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. The planetarium is included with admission to the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum.
David L. Richards is director of the Hoover-Price Planetarium at the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum, 800 McKinley Monument Drive NW, Canton, OH 44708, www.mckinleymuseum.org. He can be reached at 330-455-7043 or email email@example.com.