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These are just a few of the hundreds of galaxies in the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies, accessible by telescopes in the spring sky. Seen at center is NGC 5331, a pair of interacting galaxies beginning to hold their arms . There is a blue trail which appears in the image flowing to the right of the system. NGC 5331 is very bright in the infrared, with about a hundred billion times the luminosity of the Sun. It is located in the constellation Virgo, the Maiden, about 450 million light-years away from Earth. This image is part of a large collection of 59 images of merging galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and released on the occasion of its 18th anniversary on 24th April 2008.

Spring’s starry bouquets

May 02, 2010 at 12:27 PM


The entire month of May brings a night sky blossoming with wonder.

It is not that the stars went anywhere; warmer weather, however, brings more people outside even at night as we take another look up at our faithful constellation friends.

You don’t need a telescope to celebrate the spring stars. A menagerie of constellations associated with this season are now in view, with a few bright and colorful stars. A parade of planets accentuate the scene this month.

The Big Dipper at this time is at its highest at about 9 p.m., appearing to empty its bowl full of stars down on the North Star. Follow the handle of the Big Dipper in a sweeping arc to the east and you will see the bright orange star Arcturus. Continue this curve southeast to a bright blue-white star Spica. Arcturus is the brightest star (the “lucida”) in the constellation Bootes the Hersdman. Spica is the lucida of Virgo the Virgin.

Looking at Spica, shift your gaze to the right, facing southward. What appears as a bright yellowish star is actually the planet Saturn, and it happens to be placed right in front of the heart of an enormous, far-away galaxy cluster mentioned later. Look down from Saturn for a small but easily noticed constellation, Corvus the Crow.

Planet Mars appears as a bright orange star, half way up in the southwest. Venus is very bright, low in the west- northwest as twilight deepens into night.

If you see any “stars” whizzing by later this spring, they are certainly not stars. They could be meteors, but more likely a cascade of fireflies. Before they are even out, telescope users can marvel at spring’s flurry of galaxies.

If you have a telescope of even 3-inch aperture, you can track down the brightest of these galaxies. Many backyard star enthusiasts have telescopes of 6- or 8-inch width, or even greater. The larger your mirror (or front lens if you use a refractor), the dimmer will be your limit in seeing both stars and galaxies. All you need, in addition to the telescope, is a relatively dark sky, a good star atlas showing where to find these faint fuzzy spots, and a bit of experience in reading the star chart and nudging your telescope among the starry realm.

Spring is known for galaxies for a couple reasons. At this time of year in the evening, the Milky Way Band is out of the way. You are peering up and away from our own Milky Way, rather than looking right within the narrow starry disc where we live. The Milky Way Band is the view of that disc- the galaxy’s spiral arms seen overlapping, and they are full of dust. That dusty veil inhibits our view of truly deep space.

In addition, a vast galaxy cluster spans a large portion of the spring evening sky, crossing several constellations centered on the eastern part of the constellation Virgo. A sweep through this region with a moderate sized backyard telescope will quickly pick up numerous galaxies.

The moon reaches its last quarter on May 6.

Peter Becker writes for the Wayne Independent in Honesdale, Pa. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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