Virgo, the virgin, is one of the zodiacal constellations, is one of the 48 constellations cataloged by 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy, and is the 2nd largest constellation in the sky. It can be found at is highest point in the sky at nightfall in March. Virgo is located on the ecliptic, flanked by Leo and Libra. It can also be found by following the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle through Arcturus in Bootes to Spica (Alpha Virginis), Virgo’s brightest star. Some of Virgo’s remaining stars can be difficult to see in light-polluted urban skies because this is not a particularly bright constellation. Within Virgo is one of the two points where the ecliptic intersects the celestial equator. The moment of the Sun’s southward crossing of the celestial equator as it moves along the ecliptic is the Autumnal Equinox, which marks the first day of Fall.
The Virgo Cluster is a very large scale object spanning about eight degrees and containing 1,300 or more individual galaxies. The cluster is centered in Virgo, and extends northward into Coma Berenices. The member galaxies that were cataloged by Charles Messier are M49, M58, M59, M60, M61, M84, M86, M87, M89, and M90. Many other galaxies in this cluster have NGC designations. The Sombrero Galaxy, M104, is a very unusual galaxy in Virgo that is not a member of the Virgo Cluster. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virgo_(constellation)
When two Solar System objects arrive at their closest approach to one another as viewed from Earth, they are said to be in conjunction. This month I will examine the Moon’s close approaches to all five of the visible planets that were known to the ancients. As both the Moon and the planets are in constant motion, the actual conjunction is represented by an instant in time. Because of their slow apparent motion, the close approaches (visits?) can be observed for many hours before or after a conjunction.
As previously mentioned, the planets and the Moon never wander far from the ecliptic. One implication of this fact is that as the Moon completes its 28-day orbit around the Earth, it will be in conjunction with each of the planets once. This month, the young (thin) crescent Moon will first visit Jupiter near the western horizon in Gemini on May 3rd (closest) and 4th. Try to observe on both evenings and note that the Moon has moved eastward. Also note Jupiter’s position among Gemini’s stars, perhaps by making a sketch of Gemini that indicates Jupiter’s position. This sketch will come in handy near the end of the month.
Next up is a very interesting series of close encounters with three bright and colorful objects (Mars, Spica and Saturn) in the east at dusk on May 10th through the 14th. There are lots of things to observe over the course of these five evenings. First, the waxing gibbous Moon will grow larger each evening until it reaches full Moon on May 14th. Next, note that its location is a little farther east each evening. These two phenomena are the result of the Moon moving along its orbital path around the Earth, which changes its angle relative to the Sun. Also note that the point at which the Moon became full last month was closer to Mars (read about the lunar eclipse in April’s Scope Out), and this month the full Moon occurs closer to Saturn. This eastward slide of the full Moon from one month to the next happens because of the Earth moving along its orbital path around the Sun. And finally, note the distinct colors of the three objects: Mars is red, Spica is blue, and Saturn is yellow. The Moon will be near Mars on May 10th, and between Mars and Spica on May 11th. It will be between Spica and Saturn, but closer to Spica on the 12th, and closer to Saturn on the 13th. And finally it will be on the eastward side of Saturn on May 14th, the last evening of this string of encounters.
Another rewarding and challenging opportunity to observe the Moon arrives near month’s end as it transitions from a thin waning crescent in the eastern sky at morning, to a thin waxing crescent in the evening sky in the evening. First, observe the Moon as a thin waning crescent on the eastern horizon during its close encounter with Venus just before sunrise in the pre-dawn hours of May 25th. A careful observer might see an even thinner crescent very low on the horizon and closer to the sunrise point the next morning. After this, the Moon cannot be seen because it is lost in the Sun’s glare as it approaches new Moon (conjunction with the Sun) on May 28th. A young Moon (thin waxing crescent) emerges from the Sun’s glare on May 30th, and can be seen very low on the western horizon near Mercury. On the next evening, it will appear a little higher above the horizon, and it will once again visit Jupiter. Check the sketch that you made at the beginning of the Month. Has Jupiter moved among the stars since its last visit with the Moon on May 3rd and 4th?