May 21, 2022: The moon nears the morning planets – Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. After sundown, find two star clusters near Leo – the Beehive cluster and the Coma cluster.
by Jeffrey L. Hunt
Chicago, Illinois: Sunrise, 5:25 a.m. CDT; Sunset, 8:10 p.m. CDT. Check local sources for sunrise and sunset times for your location.
The moon, approaching its morning half phase and 65% illuminated, is over 20° above the south-southeast horizon. The moon is nearing Saturn. This morning the lunar orb is 13.6° to the lower right of the Ringed Wonder.
Notice the star Fomalhaut – meaning “the mouth of the southern fish” – is to the lower left of Saturn and over 6° above the southeast horizon. The star first appears before sunrise in the southeastern sky during this season. As Earth revolves around the sun, Fomalhaut rises earlier and by October 15, it rises at sunset.
Find Fomalhaut in the evening sky during the autumn and early winter. During late January the star is setting during mid-twilight, soon disappearing into the sun’s glare.
Fomalhaut, the 17th brightest star visible in the night skies of our planet and the 13th brightest seen from mid-northern latitudes, is visible from nearly most-populated northern regions, as far north as the 60th parallel. The star’s distance is 25 light years. It is 20 times brighter than our sun.
In the eastern sky, the morning planets continue to separate. The gap from brilliant Venus to Saturn is 56.5° and widening each morning.
During morning twilight, Venus is about 9° up in the east. It quickly steps eastward from Jupiter, 19.6° to its upper right. Mars, marching eastward, is 4.5° to the upper right of the Jovian Giant.
The Red Planet passes 0.6° to the lower right of Jupiter on May 29. This morning, Mars’ gap to Saturn is 32.3°.
Today, Mercury is at inferior conjunction between Earth and the sun. It speedily moves into the morning sky, appearing with the other bright planets later next month.
Around two hours after sunset, step outside and look to the western sky. Without the moon’s light, the finer celestial sights are available. Find Leo about halfway up in the west-southwest. The constellation is tipping toward the horizon. The backwards question mark, with Regulus at the bottom, makes the head of the celestial Lion. A triangle above the punctuation mark makes the haunches and tail, marked by Denebola.
Two star clusters, the Beehive and Coma Cluster, are nearby. The Beehive, also known as the Praesepe or Manger, is between Regulus and Pollux. The seemingly empty region between the Gemini Twins and Leo is Cancer.
Find the star cluster, nearly between Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis, with a binocular. (The stars are two donkeys, readying to eat at the manger.) The cluster can be seen, as a cloudy haze, without an optical assist for those who live without the perpetual twilight of outdoor lighting. Similar to the more famous Pleiades cluster, the Beehive is known as a galactic or open cluster. It is found within the arms of the Milky Way.
With patience and a steady hand three dozen or more stars can be counted in the Beehive through the binocular. The cluster is nearly 600 light years away, the fifth nearest cluster to our solar system.
The Coma Cluster, above Denebola, is part of Coma Berenices – meaning “the hair of Bernice.” The stellar bunch, about 300 light years away, is sparsely populated. It may have only three dozen stars in it and less than 10 are seen through a binocular.
The cluster may have been part of Leo, marking the tip of the Lion’s tail. The constellation is named for Bernice II, the Queen of Ptolemy III. After one of the king’s successful military quests, she cut her hair and placed it at the temple of Aphrodite. The legend says that Venus placed the hair in the sky.
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- 2023, October 16: Venus in Starry ConjunctionOctober 16, 2023: Venus passes a star in Leo before sunrise. A crescent moon is low in the western sky during evening twilight.
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- 2023, October 15: Three Bright PlanetsOctober 15, 2023: Brilliant Venus and Jupiter are visible before sunrise. Saturn is above the southeast horizon after sundown.