The best of astronomy this month: Catch the Eta Aquariid meteor shower on the 6th/7th of May.
By Patricia Skelton, Astronomy Education Officer
(Details given are for London and may vary for other parts of the UK)
Top 3 things to see this month:
- Throughout the month - Spot Jupiter, Saturn and Venus in the early morning sky.
- 6/7 May - Don't miss the peak of the Eta Aquariid meteor shower.
- 18 May - This month's full moon is a Blue Moon.
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 talking about the historical first image taken of a black hole and about the proposed mission called Trident which would visit Neptune's icy moon Triton. 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 available on iTunes too - search Look Up! and rate us if you enjoyed listening.
Throughout the month
The nights continue to get shorter throughout the month of May for us here in the northern hemisphere, which is great for relaxing in the early evening sunlight, but not so great for observing the night sky. The nights may be warmer and perhaps a little clearer of clouds, but with fewer dark hours there is less time to see the sights this month has for us. Worse still, while the Sun gets higher in the day sky, it also doesn’t dive as deep below the horizon at night. For those in the UK, by the end of May the Sun will never get far enough below the horizon for the sky to become pitch black, instead remaining in a faint glow known as astronomical twilight. While nowhere near as bright as the twilight directly after sunset or before sunrise, more accurately called civil twilight, it can nonetheless make observations of fainter objects difficult as they must compete with a brighter sky background. Despite this, there is still plenty to see this month.
The early morning is the time to see the planets this month now that Mars has dropped almost below the horizon at sunset. Jupiter rises around midnight with Saturn an hour or so later, both bright and easily seen with the unaided eye, though binoculars or a small telescope will start to bring out features like Saturn’s rings or Jupiter’s largest moons. Neptune is tough to see even with the aid of a telescope, disappearing rapidly into the foredawn light.
Venus however will be bright and easily visible to the naked eye for some time before dawn, until the Sun starts to rise. In all four cases the planets will be to the south or south-east and remain low down in the sky throughout.
The summer sky has a number of deep sky targets to come as well! The asterism the Summer Triangle, made of the bright stars Deneb in the constellation of Cygnus, Altair in Aquila and Vega in Lyra is rising earlier each night and bringing with it M57, the Ring Nebula. Tucked just under Vega a small telescope will be able to spot a faint fuzzy ring of material, 2300 lightyears from Earth. This is the result of a stellar death, in particular a star about the size of our own Sun. In a few billion years, when our Sun has run out of hydrogen fuel in its core, it will expand into a red giant star, swallowing the planets of Mercury and Venus, before puffing off its outer layers. The resulting cloud of gas could look very much like the Ring Nebula itself, waiting for the possibility of its material being reincorporated into the next generation of stars.
The Eta Aquariids meteor shower, associated with the famous Halley’s Comet, peaks around the night of the 6th and morning of the 7th. Passing through the debris left behind by comets, the Earth sweeps up bits of dust and rock that plummet into the atmosphere, burning up and producing the so-called shooting stars we are familiar with. This year the display coincides with a thin crescent moon which means conditions are near ideal, but unfortunately the radiant is low down in the sky for mid-high northern latitudes like the UK and Northern Europe, meaning many of the meteors will be below the horizon. For your best chance, wait until just before the sky starts to get light at dawn and look to the East and you may just get lucky!
Finally this month, the Moon will reach its full phase on the 18th, being bright and easily visible throughout the night. This full moon, known as the Flower Moon for its coincidence with the blooming of spring flowers, is also the third full moon to have occurred within this astronomical season between the spring equinox and summer solstice. With one more to go this season, this makes this month’s full moon a Blue Moon, by the traditional definition, though fortunately it should remain blue in name only, as the only real way to make the moon appear blue is to gaze upon it through the ash and dust of a recent volcanic eruption or large scale fire.
The Moon's phases this month
- 4 May - new moon (11:46pm)
- 12 May - first quarter moon (02:12am)
- 18 May - full moon (10:11pm)
- 26 May - last quarter moon (05:34pm)
- 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 mintues 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 binoculars? Check out our range of high quality observing equipment recommended by Royal Observatory astronomers:
Share your astronomy pictures
Congratulations to Timothy Wells for his beautiful 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
Hubble Vision - gallery exhibition
Come and see some of the most spectacular images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in our free exhibition at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
The exhibition is open daily until 12 May 2019.
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 © Timothy Wells
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.
- A whole host of podcasts featuring interviews with real space scientists, astronauts and active researchers working in UK Universities.