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The night sky for May 2015

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere night sky during June 2015.

The constellation of Leo the Lion is setting in the west after sunset, with the asterism of the Sickle forming its mane and Regulus as its brightest star. The planets Jupiter and Venus are both found here later in the month. Towards the South is the Realm of the Galaxies, in Virgo and Coma Berenices, where a telescope can pick out many deep-sky objects. The bright star Arcturus, in Bootes, resides nearby. Cygnus the Swan and Lyra the Lyre are rising in the east, with Hercules in between them and Bootes. The Summer Triangle, composed of the stars Altair in Aquila, Deneb in Cygnus and Vega in Lyra, is visible. One third of the way from Altair to Vega lies the Cygnus Rift, a dark region of dust in the Milky Way, which hosts Brocchi's Cluster, also known as the Coathanger. Ursa Major is almost overhead.

The Planets


Southern Hemisphere

Claire Bretherton from the Carter Observatory in New Zealand speaks about the southern hemisphere night sky during June 2015.

The winter solstice occurs on the 22nd (New Zealand Standard Time or NZST, 12 hours ahead of Universal Time) of this month, when the southern hemisphere is at its greatest tilt away from the Sun and the hours of daylight are at their shortest. The word 'solstice' indicates that the Sun is still, because it rises and sets at its most northerly points before moving south again. Brilliant Venus and golden Jupiter appear in the north-west after sunset, getting closer together as Venus ascends and Jupiter descends in the sky. They are joined by the crescent Moon on the 20th, and by the end of the month the two planets are less than one Moon diameter apart.

The centre of the Milky Way, in the constellation of Scorpius, rises high in the sky when seen from the southern hemisphere, and is currently midway up the eastern sky in the evening. The winter constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius will dominate the night sky over the next few months. The red giant star Antares marks the heart of Scorpius, the Scorpion, and a near-vertical line of stars to its left represents the Claws. Saturn, at magnitude +0.8, is a little further left still, with an almost-full Moon passing within 1.5 degrees of it on the 2nd. Scorpius is known to Maori as Te Matau a Maui, the Fish-hook of Maui. The mythical figure Maui used this to pull a giant fish from the ocean, which became Te Ika-a-Maui, the North Island of New Zealand. Antares is called Rehua, representing a drop of blood from Maui's nose that he used as bait. Scorpius was an important navigation aid in the South Pacific, as it moves overhead and shows the directions of east and west that would bring sailors to Aoteroa (New Zealand). Below the Fish-hook, the brightest stars of Sagittarius make the shape of an upside-down Teapot, and many star clusters and nebulae line the Milky Way in this part of the sky. M7, an open star cluster visible to the naked eye, sits about halfway between the stinger of the Scorpion and the spout of the Teapot. The nearby Butterfly Cluster, M6, is a lovely sight in binoculars.

The Maori new year, Matariki, happens this month when the Pleiades star cluster, also called Matariki, rises at dawn. Scorpius is on the west-south-western horizon at this time of year, with the Fish-hook pointing upwards, and Orion the Hunter is on the opposite side of the sky, rising due east. The three stars of Orion's Belt, known as Tautoru, line the horizon, and point to Sirius on their right. Sirius is called Takarua, and is the brightest night-time star. Following the Belt left leads to the V-shaped head of Taurus the Bull, with the orange star Aldebaran marking his Eye, and then to Matariki as it rises in the east-north-east. The Pleiades disappear from the sky in April, and their reappearance in early June indicates that the new year is approaching, with the next New Moon (or, in some areas, the next Full Moon) marking the actual turn of the year. This month, the New Moon happens on the 17th. Matariki, Tautoru, Takarua and Rehua are the four points of a celestial compass used to navigate the Pacific Ocean, with Matariki and Takarua marking the extremities of the Sun's rising points, Tautoru placed at one end of the celestial equator (the star Altair being at the other) and the Sun and planets moving along the line between Matariki and Rehua. They are also the four pillars, or Pou, holding up the Sky Father, Ranginui or Rangi, in Maori lore.

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The Night Sky This Month is one part of the Jodcast. The full show contains the latest news, interviews with astronomers, answers to listener questions and more.

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