If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?
This is an old riddle with a new twist. The showers and storms of April are over and, even though the severe storm season isn't yet past for Oklahoma, the night sky generally offers clearer nights in May. And that means greater opportunity to observe celestial events.
During May, the hazy band of the Milky Way lies on the horizon. When you look at the night sky this month, you are looking into space away from our galaxy.
The center of the sky this time of year is roughly formed by the constellations Leo, Coma Berenices, Ursa Major, Bootes and Virgo. In the center of that group of constellations is a region of the sky that older star charts used to refer to as the “Realm of Galaxies.” As a young child just getting into astronomy, I would read my father's old issues of “Sky and Telescope” magazines and dream about flying in a rocket into the “Realm of Galaxies.” Until, that is, it was explained to me that it would take hundreds of millions of years to get there.
I settled for looking at the “Realm of Galaxies” through my father's telescope, which I later learned is called the Coma-Virgo galaxy cluster. Later, that telescope became my first telescope — one I still own. Looking at the galaxies here, or anywhere, in an amateur-sized telescope is disappointing, at least to a 10-year-old who wanted to fly in space to see all of these wonders close-up. As I got older and read and understood more about astronomy, my fascination again grew for galaxies.
Many of the inhabitants of the “Realm of Galaxies” can be spotted with an amateur telescope. Don't expect to be impressed. Unlike their photographic appearances, the visual appearance of a galaxy is little more than a faint, grayish blob, like a star out of focus. But the visceral, emotional image that the “Realm of Galaxies” creates for a 10-year-old is beyond compare to anything on Earth.
And, by the way, the traditional answer to the riddle is “pilgrims.” Or, “June bugs,” depending upon your level of sophistication.
On Thursday, the new moon passes directly in front of the sun, creating a solar eclipse. For this one, the moon is a bit farther away than average and won't quite cover the sun's disk. A ring of sunlight, an annulus, will surround the invisible moon, creating an annular eclipse.
These are very dramatic, visually. A ring of fire floats in the daytime sky where the sun should be. Unfortunately, unless you are on vacation in Australia or New Guinea, you won't get to see it.
All things astronomical can be found in the program “Tonight's Sky” in the Kirkpatrick Planetarium Star Theater. Call 602-3761 or visit our website at www.sciencemuseumok.org for information.
The Oklahoma City Astronomy Club meets at 6:45 p.m. Friday. Guests are welcome.
Planet visibility report: Venus returns as the brilliant “Evening Star” by the end of May. Mercury also makes a brief appearance in the evening twilight starting the end of the month and reaches its best view by the middle of next month. Mars is still lost in morning twilight's bright glare as Jupiter slides into the evening twilight. Saturn is the lone planetary luminary visible in the dark, night sky. It's up in the east at sunset and remains visible virtually all night. New moon occurs Wednesday with the annular eclipse, and full moon follows on May 24.
Wayne Harris-Wyrick is director of the Kirkpatrick Planetarium at Science Museum Oklahoma. Questions or comments may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.