The May Skies

Beginning in the third week of May, look for Mercury, low in the west-northwest during evening twilight. The smallest planet in our solar system, Mercury is only slightly larger than our moon.

Venus appears as the bright “morning star” during May. Look for it low in the east at dawn. On May 25, Venus will shine right below the crescent moon. This brilliant planet usually appears as a “morning star” for slightly more than nine months and then about the same length of time as the “evening star.”

Mars can be spotted high in the southeast shortly after sunset. It will grow smaller and dimmer throughout the month as Earth, in its faster orbit, pulls farther ahead of it.

Jupiter shines brightly in the west during evening twilight. A gas giant, Jupiter has two and a half times the mass of all the other planets combined.

Saturn reaches opposition May 10. On that date, it will be opposite the sun in our sky, rising in the southeast when the sun sets in the west. Launched in 1997, the six ton, two-story-tall Cassini spacecraft, the largest interplanetary spacecraft ever built, is still in orbit around Saturn.

The Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower peaks on the night of May 5 and the morning of May 6. A waxing crescent moon should not be a problem when viewing this event. The meteors appear to radiate from the direction of the constellation Aquarius. The best time to observe will be just before dawn on the morning of May 6.

HOT AND COLD

“Never trust an atom. They make up everything.”

– Anonymous

A new world record for cold temperature found in nature was recently set in East Antarctica.

The low temperature, measured by a NASA satellite, was 135.8 degrees F below zero. In order to prevent tissue in their nose, throat and lungs from freezing, researchers exposed to extremely low temperatures like that need to breathe through snorkels that pull outside air into their coats through a sleeve, allowing it to warm up before being inhaled.

Of course, much colder temperatures can be attained in scientific laboratories on Earth. The coldest, at which point no heat energy remains, is -459.67 degrees F and this is called absolute zero. Since no heat remains, it’s not possible to remove any more. In the laboratory, scientists have achieved temperatures very close to absolute zero, at which point molecular motion ceases and quantum effects such as superfluidity and superconductivity come into play. However, with our current knowledge, actually reaching absolute zero is not possible. The closest physicists have come was in the year 2000 at the Low Temperature Laboratory of Helsinki University of Technology. They were able to cool a piece of rhodium metal to 0.000,000,000,1 of a degree above absolute zero. The coldest known natural place in the entire cosmos is the Boomerang Nebula in the constellation Centaurus. The gas in that nebula is expanding very rapidly and the temperature is -457.9 F.

What we call heat is also a function of molecular motion. The faster the motion of the atoms or molecules in a substance or object, the hotter it becomes. The exact opposite of absolute zero, the theoretically highest temperature that we can conceive with our present understanding of physics, is about 100 million million million million million degrees.

That’s approximately a billion billion times the hottest temperature found in exotic objects such as quasars and gamma-ray bursts. This highest conceivable temperature is called the Planck temperature and it is thought to have been achieved only once, a tiny fraction of a second after the cataclysmic Big Bang that created our universe.

At the Planck temperature, conventional physics (using Einstein’s theory of general relativity in describing very large structures and quantum mechanics to explain extremely small objects) breaks down when dealing with concepts such as space and time. It is apparently the highest temperature at which matter can exist. So far, the highest temperature ever obtained in a lab on Earth was 7.2 trillion degrees F and that was only for an instant. This was achieved at the Brookhaven National Laboratory by smashing gold ions together at nearly the speed of light to create a quark-gluon plasma. In comparison, the core of our sun is just a little over 27 million degrees F. Scientists using the much newer Large Hadron Collider in Europe have already broken that lab high temperature record but haven’t yet released the actual measured temperature.

Editor’s note: This monthly guide to the stars is from the Marshall Martz Memorial Astronomical Association and The Post-Journal. For further information, contact the M.M.M.A.A. at www.martzobservatory.org.