May 19, 2022: This morning the moon is in the handle of Sagittarius. The morning planets are in the eastern sky. A gap grows between them. The Big Dipper is in the northern sky after night falls.
by Jeffrey L. Hunt
Chicago, Illinois: Sunrise, 5:27 a.m. CDT; Sunset, 8:08 p.m. CDT. Check local sources for sunrise and sunset times for your location.
During morning twilight, the gibbous moon is about 20° up in the south in the handle of the Teapot of Sagittarius. The constellation looks more like the pot than the mythical centaur.
The handle has two named stars, Nunki and Ascella. Nunki – meaning “the yoke of the sea” – is to the upper left of the lunar orb. Ascella – meaning “the armpit” – is to the lower left of the moon.
Look at the moon through a binocular. A star cluster, cataloged as Messier 54 (M54) is in the same field of view as the lunar orb and the four handle stars.
The view of the star cluster is better earlier, before morning twilight starts. The stellar bunch is beyond the limits of eyesight and through a binocular it has an appearance of a tiny cotton ball, without a distinct edge and seemingly out of focus.
The star cluster is thought to be about 50,000 light years away. These clusters may have a million stars in them.
In the eastern sky, the morning planets continue to separate. Each morning, brilliant Venus is farther eastward and Saturn is farther west. This morning the Venus – Saturn gap is 54.2°. Venus is low in the east, while Saturn is over 25° up in the southeast.
In between, Mars is approaching Jupiter, 16.7° to the upper right of the Morning Star. The Red Planet is slowly closing in for a conjunction in less than two weeks.
Capella and Fomalhaut are making their first morning appearances. Capella is low in the north-northeast. This star is far enough north that it is visible after sunset in the west-northwest and in the morning at this season.
Fomalhaut – meaning “the mouth of the southern fish” – is near the horizon to Saturn’s lower left.
Mercury is nearing inferior conjunction – between Earth and the sun – on May 21. It emerges from bright morning twilight to put on a show with the other four planets and the moon during mid-June.
For sky watchers at the mid-northern latitudes, the Big Dipper is a nightly sight. It is part of a group of stars that never sets, known as the circumpolar stars. The group’s composition depends on the sky watcher’s latitude, although the dipper is seen on some nights from nearly all regions of Earth.
During late May the dipper is high in the northern sky. Its familiar seven stars are one of the first star groups that children learn in this part of the world. This famous group is part of the Greater Bear. It is also known as the plough and the wagon.
Mizar, at the bend in the dipper’s handle has a fainter star, Alcor, nearby. Mizar is a double star, easily seen through a telescope, but Mizar is farther away but along the same line of sight. Sometimes, together they are called the Horse and Rider and the Hunter and the Pot. During the centuries, writers stated that the two stars were used as an eyesight test. Seeing both stars indicated the individual had good distance acuity. Both are easily visible through a binocular.
Two stars, Dubhe and Merak, are known as the Pointer Stars. A line drawn between them and extended away from the dipper’s cup generally points in the direction of Polaris, the North Star. From any where north of the equator, Polaris is in the sky at all times, seemingly stationary. The star is nearly above Earth’s north pole and as our planet rotates the star does not seem to move much. The star’s height above the horizon indicates latitude. From near the equator, the star is near the horizon. Farther north, the star is higher in the sky. At the north pole, the star is overhead.
Polaris is in the handle of the Little Dipper and part of Ursa Minor the Lesser Bear. From urban and suburban settings, the stars between Polaris and Kochab and Pherkad are difficult to see. The latter stars are sometimes known as the “Guardians of the Pole.” During the night they make a large circle around Polaris as if walking a patrol to protect it.
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