Star Dust

A NEAT comet to watch for in May

Venus is at its brightest as May begins, just before its great fall. Although Mars has faded into an ordinary “star,” it will provide interest by cozying up to Saturn this month. Jupiter, brightest after Venus sets, is high in the south as darkness falls. Also, we have a chance to catch a nice comet during the first half of the month.

May 5th: It should be possible to observe Comet NEAT (so-called not because it is tidy but because it was discovered by the Near Earth Asteroid Tracking program). Look for the comet about one hand width (with your arm straight out) to the upper left of Sirius, low in the southwest at 9 p.m. (All times are given for the Lewiston/Auburn area.)

May 6th: Comet NEAT will be closest to the earth, and we will see it slightly higher than the previous evening about 9 p.m. If the comet is not visible, sweep the area one hand to the upper left of Sirius with your binoculars. The comet’s tail will point to the left.

May 9th: The comet will be much higher at dusk and visible in a darker sky. Around 9:30, locate the bright star Procyon, about two hands above the horizon left of west. NEAT will be less than a hand left of Procyon, and high enough for easy viewing for an hour.

May 12th: Saturn will be a hand and a half to the upper left of Venus with fainter Mars between them. The line from Venus to Saturn will point at the comet, which will be more than two hands beyond Saturn. The viewing window will start about 9:30 and last for an hour and a half.

May 20th: A very slender crescent will be just below and right of Venus at dusk. Above Venus, you will see Saturn, Mars and a star of Gemini called Mebsuta in a compact grouping.

May 21st: The crescent moon will be just to the upper left of Venus, and above them Mars will sit just one finger to the right of Saturn. Mebsuta will linger very closely above Mars that evening, and all three will fit in a binocular field.

May 22nd: The Moon will be perched above the Saturn, Mars, Mebsuta combo.

May 26th: The first-quarter moon will shine to the right of Jupiter, with Regulus just below. This is a good month to train a telescope on Jupiter and the colorful markings on its face.

Venus will have its last hurrah this month, and the other planets will do their bit. Maybe if we’re lucky, the giant snowball called Comet NEAT will steal the show and give us a spellbinding tail.

Roger Ptak is professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and author of the popular astronomy book “Sky Stories.” He and his wife now live in Northport. His e-mail address is dptak//

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