Kelly Rae on
April 29, 2010 at
Venus as seen over Brazil. Credit: Rafael Rocha
The Eta Aquarid meteor shower kicks off the month with activity from May 1 to 8. During this window of time, Earth plows through a trail of dust and debris left behind by Halley’s Comet. The peak of the shower occurs around May 6 and can bring as many as 45 meteors an hour. You can start your search for these “falling stars” any time after dark, but the constellation of Aquarius won’t appear above the eastern horizon until the middle of the night.
The three planets of Venus, Mars, and Saturn are still the ones to watch in the early evening and will remain the major planetary players for the rest of spring and most of summer. Venus gets all the attention because it shines so brightly, brighter than any other celestial body except for the sun and moon. During its evening appearances, it never strays too far from the western horizon. Venus changes phases like the moon. In May, Venus will appear to be in a gibbous phase (between half and full) through binoculars or a telescope. By fall its phase will have changed to a crescent.
Mars, Earth’s other neighbor, is the reddish starlike object high in the west. It is currently positioned between the Beehive Cluster in Cancer and the “sickle” shape in Leo. On the other side of Leo, across the border in Virgo, is the planet Saturn. Can you still spot the rings of Saturn through a telescope? The biggest challenge of the year comes on May 26, when the rings are only 1.67 degrees from edgewise.
Between new phase on May 13 and full phase on May 27, the moon passes a number of celestial objects. If you’re sitting outside in the evening with friends, enjoying the mild May weather, you can use the handy guide below to answer the question of, “What’s that bright star by the moon?” (Sometimes it’s a planet, not a star!)
• May 15 and 16 – The crescent moon passes Venus
• May 19 – The moon is below Mars
• May 20 – The half moon is beside the star Regulus in Leo
• May 22 – The moon is below Saturn
• May 24 – The moon is beside Spica in Virgo
• May 27 – The full moon is about one degree above Antares in Scorpius
For more observing highlights, check the Night Sky Observing Guide for May 2010.
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Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy