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 a procession of Bright Planets rising in the east before daybreak and the eta Aquariids meteor shower reaching its peak on the morning of May 5 with meteors being visible then and on the mornings either side of it. Meanwhile the constellation of Virgo, home to some of the brightest galaxies in our night sky, is high in the southern sky.
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.
We start the month with little or no Moon as the new Moon (no Moon) was on 30 April. On 2 May, looking through binoculars at the north-western horizon will reveal a narrow crescent moon with Mercury and the Pleaides next to it.
The first quarter Moon (a half moon) is on 9 May and you will find it high in the south-western sky as darkness falls, just above Regulus the brightest star in the constellation of Leo.
Many cultures refer to this month’s full Moon as the Flower Moon because of the abundant flower blooms that occur as spring gets going properly. Other names include the hare moon, the corn planting moon, and the milk moon.
There will also be a total lunar eclipse on 16 May, with it being visible from the Americas and parts of Africa and Europe. From the British Isles, the partial phase starts at 3:27 am and totality occurs at 4:29 am.
The last quarter Moon is on 22 May and will rise close to Saturn in the south-east morning sky. A few days later, on 25-27 May, you will see a crescent moon gliding below Jupiter, Mars and Venus, if you look very low down in the east as the mornings pass.
There is new Moon (no moon) on 30 May.
On the evening of 1 May, Mercury can be found low down on the western horizon, just to the left of the Pleiades, until it sets at around 10:00 pm. As the month progresses, it will gradually disappear into the twilight glow and will not be visible by the middle of the month. Also, if you look east at around 4:00 am on 1 May, you will see both Venus and Jupiter rising into the sky very close to each other.
From about the middle of the month, Saturn will rise in the south-east at around 3:00 am and, if you look further east about an hour later, you will see Mars rise at around 4:00 am, to be quickly followed by Jupiter and Venus, both of which will be down and to the left of the Red Planet. Neptune lies to the right of Jupiter, also rising at about the same time, but it will be very difficult to see as will shine very faintly.
The main meteor shower in May is the eta Aquariids, 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 making this the best time to look for them. However, as there is no sharp peak for this shower, but rather a plateau of good rates that lasts a few days, then same time on May 4 and on May 6 will also be good for watching for them. On these mornings, a waxing crescent moon will have set in the half hours either side of midnight, meaning that the light from it will hardly intrude on the spotting of any meteors.
The meteors will appear to emanate from the constellation of Aquarius (The Water Carrier) at a radiant point near the star Eta Aquarii, although you don’t need to look there to see meteors as they’ll appear across the whole night sky. Start looking for them shortly after 3:00 am as that is when the radiant point is above the horizon and bear in mind that the higher the radiant point gets in the night sky, the greater the number of meteors you should see. Sunrise is at around 5:30 am, so this gives you an hour or so to spot them. At its peak, around 10-20 meteors per hour may be spotted.