The best of astronomy this month: Catch the Eta Aquariid meteor shower on the 6th/7th May.
By Dhara Patel, Astronomy Education Officer
(Details given are for London and may vary for other parts of the UK).
Top 3 things to see this month:
6th-7th May - Spot some 'shooting stars' during the Eta Aquariid meteor shower.
9th May - Look for Jupiter as it reaches opposition.
30th May - Catch the wide line up of Spica, Jupiter, the Moon, Saturn and Mars.
Look Up! Podcast
As well as taking you through what to see in the night sky each month, Royal Observatory Greenwich astronomers pick their favourite astro news story. For May, they're chatting about the very unexpected finding of a galaxy which is thought to have no dark matter and the detection of a glitch in the regular beating pulse of a spinning neutron star also know as a pulsar. Have a listen below then vote for your favourite news story on our Twitter poll during the first week of the month.
Our podcast is now available of iTunes too - search Look Up and rate us if you enjoyed listening!
In the very early hours after midnight on 4th May, catch the waning gibbous moon close to Saturn in the south-eastern sky. By the following morning the Moon will have moved to settle between Saturn and Mars (further to the east) and then by the morning of 6th May, the Moon will be tucked close beside Mars. Like the Moon, these planets are bright enough to be seen with just your eyes and look like stars. Because planets move relatively quickly compared to background stars, planets were once known as the wandering stars.
The Eta Aquariid meteor shower peaks on the night of 6th May and early morning of 7th. Meteors are the dust leftovers from comets falling through our atmosphere - burning as they do. The Eta Aquariids are the result of the dust from Comet 1P/Halley – one of two meteor showers associated with this famous comet – the other being the Orionids in October. They are so called because the meteors will appear to radiate or come from a point in the constellation of Aquarius.
Unfortunately this constellation will be below the horizon until the pre-dawn hours and the Moon is in its waning gibbous phase so moonlight will be an interference, though it should still be decent. It isn’t the strongest shower but some meteors could be seen in the eastern sky even when the radiant is below the horizon. Head to an open space and use your eyes to scan the sky – they are the best tool for this job!
Just after midnight, in the early morning of 9th May, Jupiter reaches opposition. This is where Jupiter is on the exact opposite side of the Earth from the Sun and it means that Jupiter is at its nearest point to the Earth; in its full phase so it will be reflecting as much of the Sun’s light as possible making it very bright. In fact it will be far brighter than its neighbouring bright stars - Spica (to its west) and Antares (to its east). Look towards the south – it’s definitely worth catching!
If you’re looking for an even brighter planet to view – then try looking for Venus in the hour after sunset. Look towards the west where the Sun will be setting and the unmistakeably bright dot will be Venus! Its brightness is astonishing (reaching magnitude -4) and is due to its thick acidic clouds reflecting sunlight easily, not to mention it’s one of the closest planets to the Earth. It’s visible throughout May but if you wait until 17th May you could catch a glimpse of the waxing crescent moon close by too.
By the 21st the Moon will be very close to reaching first quarter (which occurs in the early hours of the 22nd). Look towards the south-west in the early evening and beside it you could spot Regulus – the brightest star in the constellation of Leo. Regulus is blue-white star and just above is an orange/red star called Algieba – you’ll conceivably see their colours once your eyes are dark adapted. Algieba is actually a binary star system – two stars orbiting close together which can be separated with a telescope. But if you only have a pairs of binoculars – then look towards Regulus. It is a multiple star system – 4 stars organised into two pairs. You could make out two points – one will be the brightest star (Regulus A) with what’s thought to be a white dwarf companion in close proximity and the second dimmer point will be the other two unresolvable stars.
Towards the end of the month on 29th May, the Moon will reach full moon. You’ll be able to watch it from around when the Sun sets when it will creep above the south-eastern horizon, all through the night and until just after sunrise when the Moon will be setting in the south-west. It will be beside the bright red star Antares and if you wait until the early hours of 30th May, there’s a line-up of bright objects from west to east – Spica, Jupiter, the full moon, Saturn and Mars – equally spaced out in the southern sky!
The Moon's phases this month
- 8 May - last quarter moon (02:09am)
- 15 May - new moon (11:48am)
- 22 May - first quarter moon (03:49am)
- 29 May - full moon (02:20pm)
- When looking at faint objects such as stars, nebulae, the Milky Way and other galaxies it is important to allow your eyes to adapt to the dark – so that you can achieve better night vision.
- Allow 15 minutes for your eyes to become sensitive in the dark and remember not to look at your mobile phone or any other bright device when stargazing.
- If you’re using a star app on your phone then switch on the red night vision mode.
- Need a stargazing telescope or decent binoculars? Check out our range of high-quality observing equipment recommended by Royal Observatory astronomers:
Share your astronomy pictures
Congratulations to Shaun Reynolds for his stunning image of the night sky. He shared his image on our astrophotography Facebook page and we chose it for May's banner image.
If you want to be in with a chance to showcase your astrophotography skills on the banner of next month's night sky blog, share your photos via our Royal Observatory Astrophotography Facebook group
You can also connect with us on Twitter @ROGAstronomers
Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year
Come and see the incredible entries and winner to the worlds biggest astrophotography competition in our free exhibition at the Royal Observatory until July 2018.
See more of the night sky
Come on an amazing tour of this month's night sky in our Sky Tonight planetarium show delivered live by a Royal Observatory Greenwich astronomer.
Central image: © Shaun Reynolds
Resources for teachers and students
The Royal Observatory learning team have also created:
- Free animated videos that answer the biggest questions in astronomy and free resources to go alongside them. We've recently released 3 brand new videos!
- A whole host of podcasts featuring interviews with real space scientists, astronauts and active researchers working in UK Universities.