Sky Watch

Catch a Beaming Beauty at Sunset

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 29, 2007; Page C03

Simply, the planet Venus is radiant. Wander outside at sunset on any evening in May and look west.

You can catch this effervescent object for about two hours after sundown. It is hard to miss, as it looks like a distant airliner with its landing lights on. Only the Moon and Sun are brighter objects in our sky.

Venus reigns at negative fourth magnitude, and that is ultra bright. Over the next few weeks, it will appear to get closer to the stars Castor and Pollux in the Gemini constellation. By the end of May, Venus and those two stars will pass one another in the night sky. Mark your calendars for May 19, as you'll see a new moon loiter with Venus.

As Venus is gorgeous, Mercury is fleet. May provides a good opportunity to see this speeding planet. Mercury will leave the protective glare of the Sun at the beginning of the month and climb the west-northwestern sky every night.

Mercury's negative second magnitude (very bright) makes it a planet to behold. By month's end, the planet is seen at zero magnitude, which is a little more dim. On May 17, the sliver of a new moon will scoot by Mercury in the western evening heavens. Our favorite nimble planet will stay only until the first week of June, when -- once again -- it will sneak out of view.

Find Saturn high in the south at sunset, as the large ringed planet will be at zero magnitude (bright). As May goes on, you can watch Saturn move toward the western heavens every night. Saturn and Venus will conjunct in late June.

And speaking of fast movers, Jupiter ascends the eastern sky before midnight now, yet will rise about dusk at the end of May. You won't miss this eastern sky object, as it will be a negative second magnitude (very bright) object.

Down-to-Earth Events

May 5 -- Melissa Hayes-Gehrke speaks about "The Many Facets of White Dwarfs" at an open house, University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 9 p.m. Information: 301-405-6555 or

May 8 -- Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging-team leader, talks on "Expedition to the Ringed Planet: Cassini Explores Saturn, Its Rings and the Fountains of Enceladus," at the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, National Air and Space Museum. 8 p.m. Tickets free but required. Information and tickets: or 202-633-1000.

May 9 -- "Fulfilling a Dream of Flight: An Evening With Astronaut Eileen Collins," a lecture, at the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, National Air and Space Museum. 8 p.m. Tickets free but required. Information and tickets: or 202-633-1000.

May 10 -- Find out why black holes share a connection with galaxy formation. Luis Ho of the Carnegie Observatories explains "The Search for Supermassive Black Holes." At the Carnegie Institution of Washington auditorium, 1530 P St. NW. 6:45 p.m. Information: 202-328-6988 or

May 11 -- John Mather, a 2006 Nobel laureate, discusses "From the Big Bang to the Nobel Prize" at the Philosophical Society of Washington, John Wesley Powell Auditorium, next to the Cosmos Club, 2170 Florida Ave. NW. 8:30 p.m. Information:

May 12 -- Mercedes Lopez-Morales of the Carnegie Institution of Washington explains "Amateur Telescopes Can Do Real Science" at the National Capital Astronomers meeting, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. Information:

May 18 -- E.T., check your MySpace. See the presentation "The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" at the Montgomery College planetarium, Takoma Park. 7 p.m. Information:

May 19 -- Sean O'Brien of the National Air and Space Museum hosts a Saturday Star Party at Sky Meadows State Park, near Paris, in Fauquier County, from 8:15 to 11 p.m. Parking fee. Arrive before dark. Information: 540-592-3556;

May 19 -- The National Park Service and the National Capital Astronomers host "Exploring the Sky" at Rock Creek Park, near the Nature Center, in the field south of Military and Glover roads NW. 9 p.m. Information: 202-895-6070 or or

May 20 -- Astronomer Xi Shao explains "Earth's Radiation Belt" at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Scan the sky through a telescope afterward, weather permitting. 9 p.m. Information: 301-405-6555 or

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at PostSkyWatch[at]aol[dot]com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company