The night sky in May this year is particularly busy: galaxies, spectacular conjunctions, the η-Aquariid meteor shower and even a total lunar eclipse! Also, the Milky Way is making its return, bringing back those beautiful nebulas we all love. So, take advantage of the improving weather and warmer nights and get out there to enjoy the show!
May 2 – Conjunction of the Moon and Mercury. This is a marvellous event, one of those you can’t (and shouldn’t) miss, so grab your binoculars and get out there! On this night in fact, a waxing crescent Moon, only 2 days old, will have a close encounter with Mercury, the smallest planet in the Solar System. The two will only be separated by 1°50′, starting from 9:30 pm above the western horizon, in the constellation Taurus.
This event is visible to the naked eye or, even better, through a pair of binoculars.
May 6 – Eta Aquariids Meteor Shower. The η-Aquariid meteor shower is generated by the debris left behind by the comet 1P/Halley and it is typically active from 19 April to 28 May but has its peak on the night between 5 and 6 May. As the name suggests, the shower has its radiant point in the constellation Aquarius, and it will be visible in the early hours of the morning, between 3:30 am (CET) and 5:30 am (CET), before the Sun rises. From a dark location it is possible to see around 50 meteors per hour; the Moon will be in its early days (around 25% lit) and will not obstruct the view with its glow.
This event is best observed with the unaided eye; a telescope, in fact, would reduce the field of view giving a hard time to spot a meteor.
May 16 – Full Moon and Total Lunar Eclipse. The full Moon in May is the Flower Moon. The name comes from the ancient Native Americans and refers to the flowers that bloom during this month. Other names used for the May full Moon are the Corn Planting Moon and the Milk Moon.
On the same night, the Moon will pass through the Earth’s shadow between 04:30am (CET) and 08:00am (CET) creating a total lunar eclipse visible throughout Africa, the Americas, Europe and French Polynesia. At high latitudes, however, this will be difficult to observe as the Moon will be quite low on the horizon at that time.
The full Moon and the Total Lunar Eclipse are well visible to the naked eye but the view through a telescope or binoculars is an unforgettable experience.
May 22 – Conjunction of the Moon and Saturn. For those who can’t sleep and those who wake up really early, a beautiful conjunction will take place on this morning when a 22-day old Moon will pay a visit to Saturn, passing just 4°27′ south of the ringed planet. The pair will be visible in the dawn sky from around 02:30am (CET) until the Sun rises around %;15am (CET).
This event is visible to the naked eyed although a pair of binoculars will deliver amazing views of Saturn and its moons!
May 24 – Conjunction of the Moon and Mars. The main actors of the second conjunction of the month are the Moon and Mars. On this particular morning, a 24-day old Moon will pass just 2°46′ south of the red planet, in one of the most beautiful encounters. The pair will be visible from around 3:30am (CET) until the two are washed out by dawn.
This event is visible to the naked eyed although a pair of binoculars will deliver amazing views of Mars’ red hue!
May 25 – Conjunction of the Moon and Jupiter. The fourth conjunction of the month sees a 25-day old Moon passing 3°14′ south of Jupiter, the king of planets. Starting from around 3:30am (CET), the two bodies will dance in the morning sky until they’re washed out by dawn.
This event is visible to the naked eyed although a pair of binoculars will deliver amazing views of Jupiter and its moons!
May 30: New Moon. The New Moon is the first lunar phase, when the far side of our natural satellite is fully lit leaving the side visible from Earth in the dark. Mark this date on your calendar for this is the best time to observe or photograph faint objects such as galaxies, nebulas or star clusters as there is no moonlight brightening the sky!
DSOs in May. Galaxies are still the main focus this month, with the usual suspects being the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51), the Sombrero Galaxy (M104), the Pinwheel Galaxy (M101), the Needle Galaxy (NGC 4565), and the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy (M83).
Other great astrophotography targets include the interacting galaxies Bode’s (M81) and Cigar (M82), or galaxy clusters such as the Leo Triplet (M65, M66 and NGC 3628) and the Markarian’s Chain which forms part of the Virgo Cluster. Perhaps less known, but equally beautiful, are the barred lenticular galaxy NGC 2787, the starburst spiral galaxies NGC 3079 and NGC 3310, and the peculiar dwarf galaxy NGC 5474.
But summer is approaching, and the Milky Way is coming back, bringing with it a set of nebulas that mark their return in the night sky. The Iris Nebula (NGC 7023), the Pelican Nebula (IC 5067) and the North America Nebula (NGC 7000) are among the first to get high in the sky. Watch out also for the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula (Sh2-131), the Cygnus Loop (Sh2-103), and the Lion Nebula (Sh2-132) which make for great astrophotography targets.