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Hal Kibbey

Last modified: Wednesday, May 2, 2012


May 2, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- On May 20, people in the western two-thirds of North America will be able to watch the moon pass in front of the sun, creating a partial solar eclipse low in the western sky just before sunset. Those within a 200-mile-wide path across the southwestern United States will see a rare annular eclipse, in which the moon appears entirely within the sun's disk. More information about this eclipse is available from NASA. Click here to learn how to view an eclipse safely.

Annular Eclipse

Annular eclipse

Print-Quality Photo

Venus will be at its maximum brilliance at the beginning of May, blazing high in the western sky in evening twilight and setting more than three hours after the sun. But the fall of Venus from this perch during the rest of the month will be dramatic. By month's end, the planet will be just a few degrees above the western horizon after sunset, disappearing a half hour later. It will make a historic transit across the face of the sun on June 5-6.

As evening twilight fades during May, bright yellow Saturn will come into view in the southeastern sky. It will be highest in the south around midnight at the beginning of the month and two hours earlier by month's end. The white star Spica will be about 5 degrees to Saturn's right (west) and about the same brightness. Saturn's rings will be tilted 13 degrees to our line of sight. Its largest moon, Titan, will be due south of the planet on May 4 and 20 and due north on May 12 and 28.

Mars will dominate the constellation Leo the Lion in the southern sky during May, though it will fade noticeably as the month advances. The red-orange planet will gradually move away from the bright white star Regulus to its right (west). By the end of the month, Mars will come into view about halfway up the southwestern sky at dusk and set around 2 a.m. local daylight saving time.

Jupiter and Mercury will be out of sight behind the sun during May for observers at mid-northern latitudes.

Meteor shower

This month, Earth will encounter a stream of dust left behind in space by Comet Halley, causing the Eta Aquarid meteor shower that will peak before dawn May 5. The shower will be active for a few days before and after the peak as well.

The meteors will appear to come from a point called the radiant in the constellation Aquarius, which will rise in the east about two hours before the start of morning twilight. The higher this point is above the horizon, the more meteors will be visible. Unfortunately, the full moon will dominate the western sky that night, washing out the fainter meteors and making the bright ones less of a spectacle. To reduce interference from moonlight, place yourself where a building or trees will block the moon as you watch the eastern sky.

Observers in the Northern Hemisphere may see about 25 meteors per hour, because Aquarius will be close to the eastern horizon. Those watching in the Southern Hemisphere will see Aquarius much higher in the sky, and there may be twice as many meteors per hour at the peak.

Moon phases

The moon will be full on May 5, at third quarter on May 12, new on May 20 and at first quarter on May 28.