Is this a UFO or a colorful, fuzzy sombrero? It's neither!
This is M 104, the Sombrero Galaxy, located in the constellation Virgo The Maiden. It's a rather unusual spiral galaxy seen almost edge on from our vantage point.
M 104 is about half the size of our Milky Way and about 31 million light-years from Earth. It sports a rather large central bulge of aging red stars and a thick dust band that gives it its distinctive shape like the brim of a Mexican hat.
It's very bright for its small size, so you can view it fairly well in 4-inch telescopes and spectacularly in scopes with apertures of 10 inches or larger. May is the best month to view this object as it gets lower in the sky in June and July making it more difficult to see unless you have an unobstructed dark view above the southwest horizon.
So, the next time you see a cow-crossing warning sign with what looks like a flying saucer on it along Taos area roads, think of this galaxy. It's the real deal.
Other celestial events to watch for in May and June:
Tuesday (May 29) Full Flower Moon.
The old adage, "April showers bring May flowers" is in concert with this full moon. Unfortunately, we are experiencing severe drought in this region. Nevertheless, our high sierra desert is blooming on schedule. Hopefully, we will receive enough rain in the coming months to replenish the life-giving water we all need.
Saturday (June 16) Venus and the Crescent Moon
Brilliant Venus, now the "evening star" for the rest of spring and most of the summer, will perform a duet with the moon about 15 degrees above the west-northwest horizon an hour after sunset (9:30 p.m. MDT). Taos residents will get the best view because of their unobstructed view of the western horizon.
If you have a digital single-lens reflex camera, this will make a beautiful picture. You need to set your camera on a tripod and take some test shots on a previous night, so you get the right exposure setting. Depending on your schedule and how you want the background sky to look, you can get some great photos from pre-twilight at 8:45 p.m. to Venus and moonset at 10:30 p.m.
Thursday (June 21) Summer Solstice
At precisely 4:07 a.m. MDT (about an hour and a half before sunrise) the sun will reach its furthest point north for the year. It will already be shifting back southward when you see it rise to mark the longest day of sunshine in the northern hemisphere.
"Sol" is Latin for "sun" and "stice" is derived from the Latin word, "sistere" which means, "to stand still." The sun seems to pause at its most northern point for a brief moment before starting its long journey to its southern most point at the winter solstice. For us this means many days of fun in the sun. Of course, the sun doesn't move at all. It's the Earth's orbit and its tilted axis with respect to the sun that causes this apparent motion.
Wednesday (June 27) Saturn at Opposition
Opposition is a term astronomers use to mark the spot in Earth's orbit that brings it closest to its respective outer planets.
Saturn is the planet most of us want to see because its beautiful rings make it a standout showpiece with respect to all the others. If you're a Saturn lover, this is the best combination you can hope for.
The ringed planet will be relatively brighter and bigger, and we will be enjoying the warmest night skies of the year too. Saturn's rings and up to five of its moons will be visible in even the smallest backyard telescopes.
Even if you don't have a telescope, Saturn will appear as a light caramel colored "star" to the naked eye. You'll have no trouble locating it on this night because it will be to the right of the nearly full moon.
That's a blessing and a curse. The moon is easy to see because it's so bright. Even though Saturn will be at its brightest for the year, the moon will be 39 times brighter. This may wash out a relatively dim Saturn.
You may need binoculars to explore the area outside the lower right limb of the moon to see it. Or, you can look a couple of nights before or after June 27 to see Saturn by itself in the constellation Sagittarius. Saturn will appear to be the brightest "star" perched above the top of the "teapot"-shaped star pattern of this well-known constellation.