Heacham and Hunstanton at Night

Heacham and Hunstanton at Night
Few of these

Town and Around's monthly astronomy column written by Terry Parish

May, the month of Spring, likely named after the goddess of fertility, Maia. Female readers might like to celebrate the 1st May in the Roman tradition; you are allowed to drink strong wine and indulge in blood sacrifices. If lock down still continues, you might have celebrated earlier.

Anyway, astronomy; it is one of the activities that has escaped police notice as they can’t see in the dark. I have friends who have done some very good astrophotography in late March and early April because the atmosphere was clearer with almost no aeroplanes dumping vapour into the upper atmosphere.

I have been slow to get going but I managed most of my recommended observations in early April. At the time of writing I am still awaiting the Lyrid meteor shower. I used my telescope on Venus in the first week of April and saw it a litlelarger than half phase.

Venus was pretty spectacular but will fade this month as it moves onwards in its orbit. The planet will effectively be lost in solar glare as it will be lower in the sky and the sun sets ever later.

It will appear to vanish right at the end of the month though not completely until the 3rd of June. On that date it will be at inferior conjunction, on a line between the Earth and the Sun, so its sunlit side is presented to the Sun, not towards Earth. It will then ‘reappear’ as a growing crescent; the horns of the crescent facing the opposite way to when Venus first appeared in our evening sky, earlier in the year. (Remember that the planet will be in the glare of the Sun).

Inferior venus

Venus ‘vanishes on Jun 3rd at inferior conjunction

Mercury shows itself this month, an elusive spark of light I like looking for. A tiny world well under half the diameter of Venus and just over a third the size of Earth. It has a very elliptical orbit that carries it relatively close to the Sun (closest 29 million miles, furthest 43 million). It orbits the Sun in 88 days.

Between the 20th and the 24th, Mercury passes Venus. Look from about 9.30pm using good, very steady, binoculars or a small telescope. On the 20th, Mercury is below and to the right of Venus. On the 21st and 22nd it is very close and just to the left of Venus. On the 23rd and 24th it is above and to the left of Venus. A thin crescent Moon is also close, further to the left, on the 24th. Well worth looking for and imaging if you can.

Earth from bepi

Earth from Bepi Columbo, a joint European/Japanese mission to Mercury. At this point it was passing Earth again in its complex 9 planet flyby. Taken April 9th.

Other planets are early morning, 4am, objects again. On the 12th, Jupiter and Saturn are just above and to the left of slightly gibbous Moon. On the 13th, to the right of the Moon. On the 14th and 15th, the Moon passes just below red Mars.

Debris from Halley’s comet makes an appearance in the first week of May. The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks on the 5th but take a look in the predawn sky on the 4th and 6th too. Yes, early morning again for the best chance of seeing meteor trails. Meteor showers occur when the Earth cuts through the debris field and that’s when it happens this time. 11pm onwards on the 5th may see some tracks but an almost Full Moon won’t help.


Halley’s Comet in 1986. I watched it move across the sky in binoculars but not like this, a fuzzy blob. Next visit is 2061/2.

I mentioned the Local Group of galaxies last month. This month use a telescope (on a clear night) to scan the sky about half way between The Plough and the horizon in the SSW. You are looking for a lot of fuzzy blobs. This will be the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies. Another way of locating it is to find the three bright stars Arcturus, Spica and Regulus. The cluster is about in the middle of the triangle they form. The 10th to the 22nd at about 11pm is likely the most convenient time to look.

The cluster contains around 2000 galaxies. Up to about 20 brighter ones can be picked up by amateur ‘scopes.

Turn your telescope and, this time steady binoculars too, almost in the opposite direction, ENE. Look for the double star, Albireo. It is the head of The Swan, Cygnus. It is also roughly in the middle of the triangle formed by the three bright stars, Vega, Deneb and Altair. After 11pm in the middle of the month is a suitable time.

Albireo is a lovely double star. Whether they actually orbit each other is not known. They may just appear to be paired from our line of sight. The pair lie around 415 light years away. A yellow star, 1300 times brighter than the Sun, is close to a hot blue star.

I missed two anniversaries last month, 30 years of the Hubble Space telescope; a wonderful device which has changed the perception of our Galaxy and the Universe. And 50 years since the Apollo 13 event. The common link between these two technological marvels is faults caused by human error.

Hubble never worked when it first got into orbit because a test instrument, during construction, was wrongly aligned. A space shuttle crew had to fix it.


The Butterfly Nebula taken by Hubble in 2009. An exploded star is at its centre. It is almost 4000 light years away. NASA

The Apollo 13 explosion was caused by poor testing procedures on the ground and damage to internal wiring by an electrical overload.

All of the engineering for Hubble and Apollo was made in America. Now, the Americans, like us, rely too much on equipment coming out of China. I hope Coved 19 reverses this. If we made what we need then shortages of essential equipment would be less likely to happen.

Take up astronomy, in the cold and the dark, few people will come close to you.

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