The month of May is named after the Greek goddess Maia, who is the goddess of earth and plants. This month will be filled with drama as the northern hemisphere of our planet truly begins to awaken and the most subtle and beautiful shades of green begin to permeate our landscape.
Be sure to get out as much as possible under the warm night skies this month. The great morning planetary parade continues to unfold, giving us a slightly different view each morning. Only Mercury remains in the evening sky, and even our first planet will join all the others in the morning sky later next month in perfect order from Mercury to Saturn, which is a very rare event, about once every hundred years.
Then we see tiny bits of the most famous of all comets, Halley, burning high in our atmosphere on re-entry as the Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks on May 6. We can also get lucky and be lucky enough to witness a comet turn very bright earlier this month in Taurus. The final bonus of this prolific month will be one of the longest physically possible total lunar eclipses as the Full Flower Moon passes deep into our 870,000 mile long conical shadow still extending into space away from the sun which follows us on our endless journeys.
Our two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, begin this month just half a degree apart in the morning sky an hour before sunrise. Venus is six times brighter than the king of the planets, which is about half a billion miles away, compared to only one hundred million miles away for Venus, one of our immediate neighbors in space. Then continue to watch Jupiter climb higher in search of its next encounter even as Venus descends lower.
Orange Mars will catch up with Jupiter by the end of the month. They will now be only half a degree apart, but this time Jupiter is 15 times brighter than our other next door neighbor. Watch closely as a waning crescent moon beautifully highlights each of the four bright planets in this fairly rare morning parade that runs from Mars to Venus May 25-27.
Saturn rises around 3 a.m. early this month in Capricorn the Sea Goat and it will rise 1 a.m. by the end of the month, still in the same constellation as it spends just over two years in each of the 12 zodiac constellations because it is twice as far away as Jupiter, moves slower in our sky, and has a longer distance to travel. Keep watching each clear morning about an hour before sunrise as this celestial planetary dance continues, and it becomes even more dramatic next month as Mercury joins the quartet.
Mercury can now be seen low in our western evening sky in Taurus just above the open Pleiades star cluster and just below the thin crescent moon on the evening of May 2, 45 minutes after sunset. of the sun. Keep watching the moon move back 12 degrees east each evening, leaving Mercury and the Pleiades further and further behind. Then Mercury descends below our western horizon about a week later, only to reappear in the morning sky. Mercury does this about six times a year, and Venus will shift from the morning planet to the evening planet about every nine months.
The third good meteor shower of each year will peak on Friday morning, May 6, but will last about a week. The other two were the Quadrantids on January 4 and the Lyrids on April 22, which is also Earth Day every year. The Eta Aquarids will all appear to emerge from the water jug of Aquarius, just west of the circle of Pisces and the Grand Square of Pegasus. The moon will only be six days old, so it will set around midnight, long before the earth passes through most of these meteors.
You can expect up to 30 meteors per hour as you watch tiny sand-grain-sized pieces of Halley’s Comet bombard us at 40 miles per second as they disintegrate about 70 miles away. high in our atmosphere, roughly at the official edge of space where our inviting and invigorating thin blue atmosphere turns black and deadly. The comet itself is about as far as it can go during its 76-year interval between returns. It last visited us in 1985 and 1986 and is due to return in 2062. It is 3.2 billion kilometers away now, more than 5 hours at the speed of light, past Neptune and not far from Pluto. Halley’s Comet is one of about 20 comets that Neptune has captured, changing their orbit from where they were in the Oort Cloud, the source of all our comets. In comparison, Jupiter with its much stronger gravitational fields captured over 400 comets in its family.
The major highlight this month will be a very long Full Flower Moon Total Lunar Eclipse. It will be fully visible to the eastern half of this country and all of Central and South America. Unlike November last year, this one will begin at a reasonable time with the moon entering the penumbra, or thinnest part of Earth’s shadow, at 9:32 p.m., and the umbra at 10:27 p.m. It will be completely immersed in our shadow from 11:29 p.m. to 12:53 a.m. and will not come out of the dark until 2:50 a.m. It’s barely 10 minutes before Saturn rises with the rest of the parade of morning planets crashing on the horizon is an hour or so later as if to join in the celebration to see what just happened pass in the sky.
Each total lunar eclipse is always unique and distinct. The exact colors range from a light orange to deeper coppery oranges to all shades of red to dark gray to almost black and disappear from our sight. A good way to think about how the dramatic, ever-changing subtle hues of orange and red are created on the moon as our atmosphere bends or refracts sunlight onto our only natural satellite is to notice that this what you really see during this memorable hour of immersion is the combined effect of all sunrises and sunsets on Earth projected onto the moon simultaneously.
So take advantage of this unusually long lunar eclipse with all it can teach you about the intersecting shadows and the huge motions that still occur on our solar system. The moon will look much more real and three-dimensional as it progresses through our shadow. At 230,000 miles away, it’s just over a second at the speed of light, so it’s really pretty close. Try to get good photos of this event as you are outside observing the whole sky. The next visible to us will be only one eclipse season away, on November 8 of this year, which is also Edmund Halley’s birthday.
May 1: Venus and Jupiter are only half a degree apart in the morning sky an hour before sunrise.
May 2nd: The crescent moon, orange Aldebaran, Mercury and the Pleiades form a graceful arc in our western evening sky an hour after sunset. Comet PanSTARRS may also be visible.
May 4: The moon passes near the dwarf planet Ceres, our largest asteroid.
May 5: Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961 aboard Freedom 7.
May 6: The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks this morning.
May 8: The first quarter moon is at 8:21 p.m.
May 14: Our first space station, Skylab, was launched in 1973.
May 16: The full moon is at 00:14. It is also called the flower, milk or planting moon. A total lunar eclipse will occur tonight when the moon passes through our shadow.
May 22: The moon passes 4 degrees south of Saturn this morning. The last quarter moon is at 2:43 p.m.
May 24: Jupiter and Mars rise together in the east.
May 25: Jupiter, Mars and the Moon form a nice trio with nearby Venus.
May 26: The moon passes half a degree south of Venus this morning.
May 28: Mars is only half a degree from Jupiter this morning.
Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.