Find out what can be seen in this month's night sky where bright Venus is joined by elusive Mercury and 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 May 6, but bright moonlight means that it will be difficult to spot any shooting stars. However, there is the possibility of us seeing a comet (Comet SWAN) low down in the northern twilight sky from the third week in May.
As it does not get dark until late into the evening, our night sky maps this month are for midnight. In the southern sky, Leo, which was due south last month has now moved towards the southwest to be replaced by Virgo (the Maiden). Virgo can be found by locating its brightest star, Spica, which will be low down on the southern horizon. If you cannot find it, then look directly overhead and you will see the Plough. Follow the curve of the Plough’s handle round, through the very bright star Arcturus and then down to Spica.
In some cultures, Virgo is the "Wheat-Bearing Maiden" or the "Daughter of the Harvest” and is depicted holding several spears of wheat in each hand. Spica is one of the ears of grain hanging from her left hand. From Spica, trace a line up and to the right to find Porrima, Virgo’s second brightest star, which is the Maiden’s lower elbow. Go up from there to find Vindemiatrix, Virgo’s third brightest star and the Maiden’s upper elbow. Many other stars make up Virgo, but they are quite faint and may be difficult for you to pick out.
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.
At the start of the month we will have a half Moon as it is at its first quarter and week later, on 7 May we have this month’s full Moon. Many cultures refer to it 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. Just as last month, May’s full Moon will be a supermoon (full Moons are those within 367,607 km of Earth) and the last of four that occur in 2020. This one will be 361,184 km away and will be about 25% brighter than the faintest full Moon.
The last quarter Moon (a half moon) is on 14 May and then, on the following morning of 15 May, you will see Mars sitting just above a crescent Moon just before dawn. There is a new Moon (no moon) on 22 May and on 24 May, just as it’s getting dark, you will be able to see a narrow crescent Moon low on the north-western horizon, with Venus to its right and the dimmer Mercury between them. You will also be able to see this on 25 May.
Venus starts May as the Evening Star, shining all evening long and setting after midnight. It is currently very close to Earth so, if you look at it through a telescope or good binoculars, you should be able to make out its crescent shape as it prepares to pass between the Earth and the Sun. The best time to look is about 15 minutes after sunset during the first part of the month. After that it will be too close to the Sun to be seen.
In the second half of the month, Mercury joins Venus in the north-west evening sky. It is a lot fainter than Venus so will be harder to pick out in the twilight. On 15 May, you can see Mercury to the lower right of Venus before it sets at about 10pm. Mercury then moves rapidly upwards, passing Venus on 21 and 22 May and by the end of the month it sets at 11 pm. Look out for it on 24 May when it will be between a narrow crescent Moon and Venus.
Jupiter, Saturn and Mars are visible in the early morning sky, quite low down. You will see them in a line over to the south and south-east from between 2 am and 3 am. Neptune rises to the east of Mars about half an hour later, but it will be difficult to see in the dawn twilight.
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. It peaks on the morning of May 6, when around 20 meteors per hour can normally be spotted. Unfortunately, its radiant point in the constellation of Aquarius rises only an hour or so before dawn and this, combined with bright moonlight, will limit the opportunity for seeing any shooting stars.
However, there is the possibility of a comet being visible in the night sky. Comet SWAN (C/2020 F8) was discovered on April 11 and is now so close to Earth that it is visible to the naked eye for those in the southern hemisphere. It is likely to be visible to us in the northern hemisphere from the third week in May. To see it, look low down in the northern twilight sky, some way to the right of where Venus appears. You might have to wait until midnight or even later, as the northern sky is quite bright at this time of year even well after sunset.
This monthly summary first appeared on https://www.rockpoolhouse.co.uk/may-stargazing.html.
It was written by Steven Marshall, owner of Steven Marshall Photography and Rockpool House Holiday Apartment. He offers landscape and night photography tuition to visitors on the Peninsulas and has various photographic prints, calendars, cards and other merchandise for sale at his studio at Rockpool House. He also enjoys taking his guests at Rockpool House on a tour of the night sky.
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