Even though May brings long days and short nights, there is still plenty for us to see if we stay up late or even get up early. This month we have not just one, but two Evening Stars, with a bright Venus being joined by a fainter Mercury in the north-west sky. Meanwhile the constellation of Virgo, home to some of the brightest galaxies in our night sky, is high in the southern sky. The eta Aquarids meteor shower reaches its peak on the morning of May 5 and meteors may well be visible then and also on the mornings either side of it.
Virgo is home to a large cluster of galaxies known as the Virgo Cluster. The Cluster contains over 2,000 individual galaxies, 11 of which are Messier objects that will be visible to anyone using a reasonable astronomy telescope. They are all galaxies and the most notable of these is M104, the Sombrero Galaxy. This edge-on spiral galaxy has a dark dust lane running across its centre, giving it the appearance of a sombrero hat. M49 is an elliptical galaxy and is the brightest galaxy in the Virgo Cluster. M58 is a beautiful barred spiral galaxy and one of the brighter galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. M61 is a face-on spiral galaxy and is one of the largest galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. Other notable deep-sky objects in Virgo include the Eyes Galaxies and the Butterfly Galaxies. Both are made up of pairs of interacting galaxies that are colliding with each other.
Below Virgo is Corvus, the Crow. It is reasonably easy to find as it is a distinct, almost square set of stars right down on the horizon. Above Virgo, you will find Boötes (the Herdsman) and its brightest star, Arcturus. This star is easy to spot as it is the fourth brightest star in the night sky and has a noticeable golden tinge. It is part of the Spring Triangle asterism, which is formed by drawing lines from Arcturus to Spica, Spica to Regulus and Regulus back to Arcturus. Below and to the left of Virgo is Libra (the Scales), a very faint constellation with its main claim to fame being that it is the only constellation in the zodiac which doesn’t represent an animal.
As there is a new Moon (no Moon) on 11 May, you will find the slightest of crescent moons, with Mercury close to it and Venus below and to the right of it, setting in the north-west at around 10:00 pm a couple of days later on 13 May. During the following two days, the setting crescent moon will move to be above and to the left of Mercury and to be below and to the right of Mars.
The first quarter Moon (a half moon) is on 19 May and a week later, on 26 May, we have this month’s full Moon. Many cultures refer to this full Moon as the Flower Moon because of the abundant blooming that occurs as spring gets going properly. Other names include the hare moon, the corn planting moon, and the milk moon.
Similar to last month, May’s full Moon will be a supermoon (full Moons are those within 228,420 miles of Earth) and the third of four supermoons that occur in 2021. This one will be the biggest and brightest full moon of the year and, at only 221,117 miles away from Earth, it will be about 30% brighter than the faintest full Moon we see.
This is a good month for spotting Mercury and Venus, the two closest planets to the Sun. Of the two, Venus will be easier to see as it will be shining bright in the north-western evening sky up until it sets in the hour following sunset. You will find Mercury above Venus for almost all of the month but, as each night passes, Mercury moves closer to Venus until, on 28 May, they are right next to each other. Also, on the night of 13 May, you will find Mercury sitting right next to the crescent moon.
Saturn rises in the south-east at about 3:00 am, while Jupiter follows about half an hour later, rising above the horizon at a point below and to the left of Saturn.
Meanwhile, in the western evening sky you will still find Mars, low down on the horizon and just below Castor and Pollux, the twin stars in Gemini. It will be visible from just after sundown until shortly after midnight, when it will dip below the western horizon.
The main meteor shower in May is the eta Aquarids, which is the result of small pieces of Halley’s Comet burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. This year it is forecast to peak between midnight and dawn on the morning of May 5, when around 10-20 meteors per hour may be spotted. On this morning, a 38% full waning crescent moon will rise at around 4:30 am, so the light from it won’t intrude to much on the spotting of any meteors. As this particular meteor shower has quite a broad maximum, you might want to also look for them on the mornings of 4 and 6 May as well.
Hi, I’m Steven Marshall, a Scottish landscape photographer based at Rockpool House in the heart of the beautiful West Highland Peninsulas of Sunart, Morvern, Moidart, Ardgour and Ardnamurchan. Get in touch for photography tuition, tours and print sales.