Night Skies - May 2017

May Night Skies

Attached chart shows the night sky at around 10 PM, mid May.

With the Summer Solstice (the longest day and shortest night) in mid June, the months either side don’t offer a lot in the way of truly “dark sky” time in which to observe. There are however, plenty of things still going on in the sky to keep us going in the shortening nights ahead.

Looking at the visible planets, and it’s a farewell to Mars this month. Over the past weeks, the planet has been slowly loosing the fight against the growing Evening twilight sky and although starts the month some 12 degrees above the WNW horizon at Sunset, by the time we reach month end, Mars will be too close to the Sun to safely observe for several months to come.  Turning towards the southern horizon, Jupiter is the bright object blazing away just to the right of the star Spica.  An almost Full Moon will be nearby Jupiter on the 7th May for some possible photo opportunities and as ever, the King of the planets is a rewarding target in tripod mounted binoculars or small telescopes, offering views of the main cloud belts and the four brightest satellites.

Around midnight, the ringed planet Saturn rises in the SE sky and will become more prominent over the Summer months. Binoculars or telescopes will detect the beautiful rings around the planet and it will always be one of those “wow” objects when seen with optical aid. The Moon will be near the planet on the 14th May for a photo possibility or as an easy locator for the planet. 

Turning to the morning skies, and it’s Venus that can be seen on the Eastern horizon, rising some 1 ½ hours before Sunrise. This bright beacon will be joined by the crescent Moon between the 22nd and 23rd May and on the 24th of May, you will be able to use the very thin crescent Moon to find the final visible planet, Mercury. This will be quite a challenge due to bright dawn sky and the need for a very low E horizon, but  if you do spot the Moon then, look some 2 ½ degrees (or five moon diameters) above the Moon and you may be able to see the elusive Mercury.

The early morning hours will also be best for viewing this months meteor shower, the Eta Aquarids. This shower is active throughout May, with the best rates of meteors between 4th -8th of the month. Although maximum numbers for this shower can be as high as 50 meteors per hour, two factors work against us and will lower these numbers considerably. The shower radiant – the area of the sky that the meteors appear to come from or “radiate” - is still low in the ESE sky in the mid early morning hours and from the 8th of the month, the brightening Moon will start to interfere and drown out the fainter meteors. However as in all things astronomical, you just never know your luck so keep your eyes open incase.

The final object for the month is a Comet. There are actually two currently visible, but both require telescopes or binoculars to see them. The brighter of the pair is Comet Johnson, a comet that is slowly brightening and while just visible in binoculars at month start, should become more obvious by month end. You will just see a small fuzzy blob of light I’m afraid, no sign of tail in binoculars as yet. The fainter dust and gas tail is just starting to be detected in long exposure photographs and the attached photo I took some days ago through my telescope will show roughly the “smudge” of light that you’ll see in binoculars. A chart of the comet’s path is also attached so you can follow it through the heavens in the month ahead.

Well, good luck and good hunting!

Supplied by MidWales Astronomy