Spring is traditionally the season for galaxies, but this spring you can add planets to the list of targets. Jupiter dominates the early evening southern sky, and for the next few months, it can be found below the belly of Leo the Lion.
Leo is one of the constellations of the zodiac, and one of the easier ones to identify. Right now, Jupiter makes a good marker. Regulus, the brightest star in Leo at magnitude 1.34, can be seen 15 degrees to the northwest (above and to the right) of Jupiter. Denebola, literally translating as the tail of the lion, is also about 15 degrees from Jupiter, but up and to the left. Regulus is the base of the asterism known as the sickle, or “backwards question mark,” that makes up the mane of the lion.
There are a couple of nice galaxy groupings in Leo, but none of the individual galaxies will be outstanding when viewed through a small-aperture telescope. They are, however, bright enough to show slight structure to their fuzziness.
The Leo Triplet, comprising M65, M66 and NGC 3628, can be seen in the same low-power field of view, and each is uniquely photogenic. M65 is a classic, symmetric spiral without noticeable dust lanes. The spiral M66 has a prominent arm that sticks out asymmetrically. It is apparently the result of gravitational interactions with NGC 3628. The last of the triplet, NGC 3628, is only slightly less prominent than the two with Messier designations. This edge-on spiral galaxy has a very conspicuous dust lane that I think makes it the most photogenic of the three.
A second trio of galaxies includes M95, M96 and M105.
This monthOn Sunday, the moon will pass about 2 degrees to the south of Jupiter. That will be a good time to compare the relative size and brightness of those two objects.
Mercury will be at its greatest eastern elongation Monday, which is as high as it gets in the western sky. It will be easiest to see low on the western horizon at dusk on the few days around Monday. Mercury will also be visible again in a unique way on the morning of May 9. As the sun rises, Mercury will be making a rare transit of the sun. You can see part of the transit from here, but you will need appropriate solar viewing eye protection to see it.
Mars and Saturn both rise around midnight near the star Antares in Scorpius. The name Antares derives from the Greek and means equal to, or rival of, Ares, which was the Greek name for Mars. So now you can compare the color and brightness of Mars and Antares when they are close to each other in the sky.
Since Mars is now brightening as it approaches opposition, it will be outshining both Antares and Saturn. But even if Saturn isn’t quite as bright as Mars, it is hard to beat as a favorite target. I hope you get a chance to see it through a telescope sometime in the next few months.
Charles Hakes is a visiting assistant professor in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College and is director of the Fort Lewis Observatory. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.