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    Articles > May 2001
 
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Star-Hopping: Your Visa to Viewing the Universe

A great guide for new and experienced sky watchers.
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  The Celestial Delights of May
There's always something interesting to see in the night sky no matter whether you observe with binoculars, a telescope, or just your eyes. Go outside on a clear moonless night and enjoy the view. Remember, Astronomy is for everyone! Use the sky map to find the Big Dipper (or Plough) and then Polaris, the North Star. Once you find Polaris you will have also found the Little Dipper. Now follow the handle of the Big Dipper and "arc to Arcturus", the brightest star north of the celestial equator and the fourth brightest star in the entire sky.

About halfway between Arcturus and the western horizon lies the zodiac constellation Leo. It depicts a crouching lion--the backward question mark, or Sickle, is Leo's head and chest, and the triangle-shape his rear and tail. The next brightest star in the sky after Arcturus is brilliant Vega (currently visible in the east). Near Vega lie three of the most visually appealing objects in the sky. Epsilon Lyrae, the famous Double-Double star, is a striking quadruple star system. Binoculars show a double star, but a telescope at high magnification will reveal each "star" to be double.

A short star-hop away is the beautiful Ring Nebula (M57). A telescope shows this object to resemble a faint smoke ring in the sky. Lower in the sky is Albireo, a beautiful double star whose components shine with contrasting colors of orange and blue-green (requires binoculars or a telescope).

Sky watchers should not miss the opportunity to view the globular star cluster M13 which is located in the constellation of Hercules about midway between Arcturus and Vega. This is the brightest object of its type in the northern sky and it spans about half the apparent width of the Moon. M13 is made up of several hundred thousand individual stars held together by gravity. Under very dark skies it is visible to the unaided eye as a hazy-looking star.

Finally, after an absence of almost one year, the red planet Mars returns to the evening skies this month. Mars appears as a bright orange-red "star" low in the southeast soon after midnight in early May, climbing higher into the sky by month's end. Wait till the planet is higher in the sky, then use a good telescope to take a closer look. Even a small telescope will reveal the white polar caps on the red planet and possibly a few dark surface features as well. More on Mars next month...


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