Mercury is at its highest apparition in the evening sky this month. During the first week of May, Mercury lies just south of the Pleiades (The Seven Sisters) star cluster low in the W as twilight fades to darkness.
Shining at mag. -1.1, the solar system’s innermost planet is best viewed between May 16 and May 28 when it lies about 10 degrees (width of fist at arm’s length) above the NW horizon about 45 minutes after sunset. Mercury reaches its greatest eastern elongation from the sun on May 24.
As May opens, mighty Jupiter, at mag. -2.0, sits high in the western sky as darkness falls. Jupiter will fade slightly as the month progresses, but it is still a brilliant object to view in both binoculars and scopes. It sets around midnight by mid-month.
Mars, in the constellation of Virgo - the Maiden, sits high in the southeast sky as darkness falls in early May. Shining at mag. -1.2, the red planet is best viewed from mid-evening until around 2 a.m. On May 13, look for Mars just to the lower left of the moon.
Saturn (mag. 0.1) blazes at its best this month. This magnificent planet reaches opposition (opposite the sun in the sky) on May 10. It is at its closest to Earth then as well, and offers its best view of the year. It will rise at sunset, be at its highest point in the southern sky around 1 a.m. and set as the sun rises. Saturn’s ring system is opened wider than at any point since 2005. For more information about Saturn’s May 2014 apparition, go to www.skyandtelescope.com or www.astronomy.com.
Venus rises in the east approximately 90 minutes before the sun in mid-May. At mag. -4.0 it is by far the brightest object in the sky before the sun breaks the horizon. On the morning of May 25, about one hour before sunrise, look for Venus to the lower left of the waning, crescent moon.
On the evening of May 1, Comet c/2012 K1 (PANSTARRS) can be found just north of M51 — the Whirlpool Galaxy in the constellation of Canes Venatici — the Hunting Dogs. Shining at mag. 8, the comet should be visible in binoculars and scopes from a dark site as a round, grey cotton ball-like object.
The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks in the pre-dawn hours of May 6, with an expected rate of 40-plus meteors per hour. The
waxing, crescent moon will set around 1:30 a.m., leaving a few good hours to catch the peak.
The big excitement for meteor watchers is, of course, the possibility of seeing a brand new meteor shower (as yet unnamed). Astronomers are predicting that the Earth will pass through the debris trail of Comet 209P/LINEAR in the pre-dawn hours of May 24th. The radiant of the shower is plotted to lie just south of Polaris (the ‘North Star’) in the constellation of Ursa Minor — the Little Bear. It is anticipated that, at its peak, there could be 100+ meteors per hour streaking across the sky. The waning, crescent moon, which rises around 3 a.m., is not expected to interfere very much with viewing this shower. Make it a point to get up early that morning and step outside to see these never-before-seen meteor shower.
May’s full moon is often referred to as the “planting moon” as this is he time of the year when crops are planted in many places.
Until next month, clear skies.
May 6 - Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks; pre-dawn;
May 6 - Moon at apogee; 7:24 a.m.;
May 7 - First quarter moon; 12:15 a.m.;
May 10 - Saturn at opposition; 3:00 p.m.;
May 14 - Full (“planting”) moon; 4:16 p.m.;
May 18 - Moon at perigee; 8:57 a.m.;
May 21 - Last quarter moon; 9:59 a.m.;
May 24 - Peak of meteor shower linked to Comet 209P/LINEAR; pre-dawn;
May 28 - New moon; 3:40 p.m.
Glenn K. Roberts is a member of the Charlottetown Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). His column appears in The Guardian once a month. He welcomes comments from readers. Anyone who would like to comment on his column is encouraged to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.