May Night Skies
April was the month to observe Mars, but May is for Mercury and Saturn. Mercury is appearing in the west in the early evening, trying to shine through the colors of the sunset. This is the best month of the year to see Mercury, with the end of May giving you your greatest chance to spot it. Mercury is brightest when it is closest to the sun, but it will be hard to see Mercury until after it has risen a bit higher in the sky and dimmed from its peak of brightness. On May 8, both Mercury and Mars shine at magnitude -1.0. Both planets get dimmer after this date, but Mercury dims more quickly. However, it also climbs farther away from the sunset’s glow, which actually makes it easier to see.
Each evening as Mercury has been climbing higher in the sky, Jupiter has been sliding down to meet it. But Mercury starts sinking back toward the horizon on May 25, which means their meeting will be left for another day. On May 30 Mercury shines at magnitude 1.2 and should be easy to spot beside a crescent moon.
Jupiter spends May in Gemini, and the moon passes through its vicinity on May 3 and 4, and then again on May 31, when the moon is a 10-percent-lit crescent. Mars and Saturn are trailing behind Jupiter on the ecliptic. Saturn reaches opposition on May 10 on the same evening that the moon nears Mars, and three days later the moon reaches Saturn just a little shy of full phase. The Full Moon is on May 14 at 12:15 p.m. PDT.
Last month before sunrise it was Neptune that came within two degrees of Venus, but in May it’s Uranus’s turn. On May 15 you can find Uranus less than two degrees to the upper left of Venus. If you want to see Venus and Uranus together in the evening, you’ll have to wait until March 4, 2015, when they will be less than a degree apart.
The Eta Aquarid Meteors peak on May 6 when we pass through an old stream of dust left behind by Halley’s Comet. These fast-moving meteors with long trains are best in the early morning hours of May 6 and may produce up to 70 meteors an hour.
Before sunrise on Saturday May 24, Earth will pass through a debris trail left behind by comet P/ 209 LINEAR, giving us the chance for an outburst of meteors. With a possibility of 400 meteors an hour, it’s worth a peek.
May Observing Highlights: Mercury and Saturn
(Photo: Jupiter and Mercury as seen in 2011. Credit: John Chumack)
Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomymagazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.