Last modified: Monday, May 2, 2005
Jupiter and Saturn rule the night sky in May
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The solar system's two largest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, will be on display in the evening throughout May.
This will be the last month this year to get a good view of Saturn in a dark evening sky. Next month it will be visible only in twilight. The bright yellow planet will be high in the west as darkness falls, to the lower left (south) of the stars Pollux and Castor of the constellation Gemini. Farther to the lower left will be the bright star Procyon, and to the right (north) of this group will be the constellation Auriga with its bright yellow star Capella. The combination of all of these will make a pretty sight in the west after nightfall.
As Saturn sinks in the west, Jupiter will be climbing high in the south. Jupiter was closest to Earth last month, but the giant planet is far enough from us that it will still be a dominant sight in its part of the sky for weeks to come. To the lower left (east) of Jupiter will be the bright star Spica.
Mars will finally start to brighten noticeably during May, after being faint for months. The red planet will rise around 3 a.m. local daylight-saving time and be well up in the southeast when morning twilight begins.
Venus will be barely visible above the west-northwestern horizon a half hour after sunset at the beginning of May, and it will set soon afterward. But it will climb higher in the evening sky as the weeks pass. By month's end, it will be visible for more than an hour after sundown, well on its way to becoming a beautiful "evening star."
Mercury will be very close to the eastern horizon before sunrise and difficult to see during the first two weeks of May. After that it will be out of sight in the solar glare.
On the evening of May 19-20, observers in much of South America and parts of South Africa will see the moon pass in front of (occult) the brilliant white planet Jupiter.
On the night of May 23-24, those in North America watching the full moon will see it occult orange Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. If possible, watch with binoculars as the star disappears behind the moon and reappears from the opposite edge. The starting time for the event will range from 4:22 a.m. EDT in Boston to 3:02 CDT in Chicago to 1:26 a.m. MDT in Denver to 11:49 p.m. PDT in San Francisco. The star will be hidden behind the full moon for about an hour, but the exact duration of the occultation will vary with the viewer's geographic location.
More information about occultations is available at http://www.lunar-occultations.com/iota/iotandx.htm.
Earth will plow through dust left behind in space by Comet Halley, causing the Eta Aquarid meteor shower that will peak on the night of May 4-5. The moon will be a thin crescent, so viewing conditions will be favorable in a clear sky. This shower is active for three or four days before and after its peak, beginning after midnight local time, but most of the activity will happen an hour or two before dawn for observers in North America. Many of the meteors skim through the top of the atmosphere, producing long paths. In a dark sky there should be about 20 meteors per hour, most of them high overhead. They will appear to come from a point in the constellation Aquarius, which will rise in the east after midnight. The higher Aquarius is above the horizon, the more meteors there will be. More information about the Eta Aquarid shower is available at http://skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/meteors/article_577_1.asp.
The moon will be at third quarter on May 1, new on May 8, at first quarter on May 16, full on May 23 and at third quarter again on May 30.