Be sure to enjoy Astronomy Day

Jupiter and two of its moons. The "King of the Planets" was at its closest position to Earth Saturday and will be visible in the evening sky Sunday. (Courtesy Greg Redfern)

WASHINGTON — Today is Astronomy Day in the United States and around the world. Since its inception in 1973 as a means to bring “Astronomy to the People,” the day has been very successful in doing just that.

Astronomy Day is established by the lunar cycle so it changes from year to year. This is done to include the moon in telescope viewing when it’s most dramatic, without it being so bright that it totally washes out the night sky.

Here in the DMV, we have a wonderful selection of astronomy clubs, colleges and museums that are dedicated to astronomy and space. Astronomy Day is also celebrated in October to take advantage of the changing night sky. October’s Astronomy Day is October 4.

The Astronomical League, an organization comprised of more than 240 astronomy clubs and a major force in amateur astronomy, maintains the official Astronomy Day Webpage.

Though May 10 is the official Astronomy Day, related events go on throughout the month. The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC) will host one of the biggest Astronomy Day events in the DMV on May 31, 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. Each year, this has been a real crowd pleaser, as NOVAC goes all out with providing facilities, telescopes and speakers for the general public – especially families – to enjoy. I hope to be there this year with my own telescope.

I will be at George Mason University Observatory(check the website for weather updates)on May 12 to give a presentation on the Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater(CBIC). Afterwards, the Observatory’s telescopes will be open to the public for observing.

You can see a monthly listing of DMV astronomy events at the Astronomy in D.C. Web site. This is a very nifty way to keep up on astronomy related events in our area. The site also has a comprehensive listing of resources that you can check to see what’s in your area.

The night sky of May (once the clouds clear) has a great planetary lineup and a possible new meteor shower for skywatchers to enjoy.

Jupiter dominates the Western sky as it gets dark; it’s the brightest “star” in that part of the sky. Binoculars held steady will show the four main moons of Jupiter. NASA’s latest mission to Jupiter, Juno, is en route and will arrive in July 2016.

Mercury is also in the evening sky in the West, and will be joined by the slim crescent moon later this month. You need a clear view of the horizon to see Mercury, which will be about half a fist-width above the moon. Binoculars really help in finding golden-yellow Mercury. NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft is still in orbit observing the planet closest to the sun.

Today, Saturn is at opposition, which means it is directly opposite the sun and rises in the southeast at sunset. Saturn will be very close to the full moon on the night of May 13 and 14. Viewing this planet’s spectacular rings in a telescope is a must-see. NASA’s Cassini mission is studying Saturn and its moons on an extended mission.

On May 11, the moon passes by the Red Planet Mars, which is still bright although it is fading as the distance between us increases. Check out the latest from NASA on Mars and learn about NASA’s newest mission to Mars.

Venus is low in the Eastern sky before dawn and will be joined by the moon on May 25.

On the night of May 23 and 24, there is a predicted new meteor shower that will be at its predicted peak for observers in the U.S. and Canada. Meteor showers are caused by the Earth intersecting streams of cometary and asteroid debris left by their passing through the solar system.

I will be writing more about this event as we get closer, but mark down the date. This could be the best meteor shower for the whole year.

I hope you will take advantage of the astronomy resources we have here in the DMV, especially the numerous star parties that are held monthly. If you have not looked through a telescope, or it has been awhile since you have done so, you owe it to yourself – especially if you have kids – to do so.

I’ll see you there.

Follow me on Twitter and my daily blog to keep up with the latest news in astronomy and space exploration. You can email me at skyguyinva@gmail.com.

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