Jon U. Bell

Sky Watch Host

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On May 25th in the year AD 735 – that’s over 1200 years ago - Baeda, the Venerable Bede, died. He was an English monk who in the 8th Century was the first person we know of to have written scholarly works in the English language. He also wrote De Natura Rerum, which was a collection of works on geography and astronomy, much of it preserved knowledge from Greek civilization, but also knowledge gained by observation and deduction.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born on May 22nd, 1859. He was, of course, the creator of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, one of my favorites. It bothers, me, though, that Holmes didn’t know anything about astronomy, nor did he care. When Dr. Watson informed him, for instance, that the earth orbited the sun, he replied, “What… is it to me? You say we go round the sun.

Last night the moon and the planet Saturn could be found near each other above the constellation Scorpius. Actually they were both within the borders of a star pattern named Ophiuchus, which is depicted as a big guy wearing a toga and holding a snake – he’s actually a mythical doctor, it’s a long story. Okay – Ophiuchus is not the guy’s name, that’s his title, which means, “serpent bearer.” His actual name is Asclepius, and those in the medical profession still swear by Asclepius when they take the Hippocratic oath.

The moon is full tonight and it can be found between the stars Zubenelgenube and Zubeneshamli in the constellation Libra. Until a few thousand years ago, Libra was part of the constellation Scorpius, and those two stars, Zubenelgenube and Zubeshamale, mean “southern claw,” and “northern claw.” May’s full moon is the Planting Moon of springtime, also the Milk Moon, the Hare Moon or the Frogs Return Moon. Since it’s May we also call it the Merry Moon. In oriental culture it’s known as the Buddha Full Moon.

The moon is nearly full this evening; May’s full moon always makes me think of horseshoe crabs out in the Atlantic Ocean. Not a true crab at all, but a distant relative of spiders and scorpions, the horseshoe crab is often called a living fossil because its kind has existed unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. In the springtime, usually in the month of May when the moon is full and the tide is high, the horseshoe crabs mate and lay their eggs in the sand at the water's edge, continuing the process that has brought them unchanged to the present day.

Here’s a small astronomy quiz for you all to puzzle over: What’s the closest planet to the sun? The old constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is overhead in our sky this evening, but in America, we see another pattern among its stars – what is it? Which is bigger – a galaxy or a solar system? What did Clyde Tombaugh discover? Here are the answers. The planet Mercury is closest to our sun, at a mere 36 million miles; and last week we got to see it pass directly between us and the sun.

The Big Dipper is about halfway up in the northern sky after sunset tonight. This is a pretty easy group of stars to find: it’s made up of seven fairly bright stars which trace out the pattern of a saucepan in the heavens. Three of the stars, Alkaid, Mizar and Alioth, mark its handle, and four stars – Megrez, Phecda, Merak and Dhube, form the pot or the bowl.  Now the official constellation in this part of the sky is Ursa Major, the Great Bear, in Greek mythology a maid who was transformed into a bear and carried into the sky by Zeus, the king of the gods.

Halfway up in the eastern sky this evening there is a star that doesn’t belong here – an interloper. It’s Arcturus, the fourth brightest star in our night sky, and it’s a visitor from beyond the galactic disc. Arcturus is an old red giant, and while most of the stars you see up there are moving along with our sun, traveling in nearly circular orbits about the hub of our Milky Way galaxy, Arcturus moves at a sharp angle to all the others. Our sun and planets are embedded within the Milky Way’s disc, and our orbit carries us along in the plane of the disc as we revolve.

The moon is in its waxing gibbous phase. That’s when it looks egg-shaped; but give it a few more days and it will be all the way round and full. Tonight it’s entered the constellation of Leo the Lion, and you should find it very near the lion’s heart, a star called Regulus, a little bit off to the left of the moon. Farther to the left is a very bright star, which is not really a star at all, but the planet Jupiter. Tomorrow night, because of its orbital motion, the moon will be even closer to Jupiter.

Since the Hallstrom Planetarium began presenting shows at Indian River State College back in 1993, we have served three distinct groups: college students, who take classes and practical labs in astronomy, celestial navigation, and observations on the basic structure and contents of the Universe; school children, from Kindergarten through 12th grade, come on free field trips and discover the wonders of outer space, viewing exciting programs that are tied in with public, private and home-school curriculums.

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