May 2006 Sky from the Keeble Observatory
Will the last scientist to leave NASA please turn out the lights? Perhaps that’s
too dire a prediction, but it is becoming apparent that the agency’s mandate to
complete the International Space Station and retire the shuttle fleet by 2010 is
going to curtail or cancel the science program. With the follow-on Crew Exploration
Vehicle not scheduled for flight until 2014 at the earliest, we face a double edged
threat: Human access to space will be limited to launches from Russia and from China’s
fledgling manned program. Funds are being diverted from ongoing and planned science
missions to finish the space station, keep the remaining shuttles flying, and design
and build the next crewed vehicle.
NASA administrator Dr. Michael Griffin has testified before the Senate’s Commerce
Subcommittee on Science and Space that he believes that human spaceflight is a higher
priority than science. While the Bush administration has asked for $16.8 billion
for NASA in its 2007 budget, in order to fund the remaining flights to build the
space station Dr. Griffin is proposing to divert $3 billion from space science over
the next five years. This still leaves the need for another $15 billion to build
the CEV and send crews back to the Moon by 2020.
Gus Grissom, one of the original Mercury astronauts, once observed that without
launching men into space, the American public was unlikely to pay for pure science.
But, if they were paying for manned spaceflight, there would be sufficient funding
to do science. Now it appears that we are headed to a period when we are unable
to do either.
Lunar phases for May: First Quarter on the 5th, at 1:13 am; Full Moon at 2:51 am,
on the 13th; Last Quarter on the 20th, at 5:20 am; New Moon on the 27th, at 1:26
Evening planet watchers will be able to observe Jupiter all night this month. It’s
just past opposition, so it rises a little after sunset, and sets just after sunrise.
Watch for it in the constellation Libra. Mars and Saturn are high to the west and
southwest at sunset. Since Mars is closer to Earth, it will appear to move more
rapidly through the background stars. It begins the month below Castor and Pollux,
in Gemini, and gets close to Saturn in Cancer by month’s end. Binoculars will allow
you to see the familiar rings of Saturn, as well as the even more distant Beehive
Cluster in the same field of view.
Predawn viewing will find Venus bright at about 20 degrees above the southeast horizon,
with Mercury low to the east at the beginning of the month. Mercury moves quickly
into the Sun’s glare, and will return to the evening skies by the beginning of June.
At midmonth, our overhead view two hours after sunset finds us looking out of the
plane of the Milky Way, towards the “North Galactic Pole.” There’s nothing special
about that point on the sky, nor are there any bright stars to mark the spot. (Even
though Polaris marks the approximate North Celestial Pole, there’s nothing special
about that direction in space, either. Earth’s axis precesses through a wide circle
on the sky every 26000 years, so having a Pole Star is a relatively rare occurrence.)
High to the north, look for the familiar “Big Dipper” of Ursa Major. The two stars
at the end of the bowl point towards Polaris. Follow the curve of the “handle” toward
the east southeast to find the bright star Arcturus, in the constellation Bootes,
about 60 degrees off the horizon. Continue the curve further to the south to find
Spica, the bright star in Virgo, about 40 degrees from the horizon. Don’t confuse
it with the much brighter Jupiter, below and to the left in Libra. Turning to the
southwest and looking a bit higher you’ll find the constellation Leo with its brightest
star, Regulus, at about 50 degrees elevation. To the west lie Castor and Pollux,
in Gemini. Low to the northwest is Capella, in Auriga.
For your own monthly star chart, you can direct your web browser to
http://www.skymaps.com. You will find extensive descriptions of what's worth
looking for, and you can download and print a single copy for your personal use.