Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


The Night Sky of May

Dr. Wayne Wooten
Professor of Astronomy

For May 2014, the new moon occurs on April 30th, so the first two weeks find the moon waxing in the evening sky. On May 4th, the waxing crescent moon passes 5.4 degrees south of Jupiter in the evening sky. The Eta Aquarid meteor shower, debris from Halley’s Comet, peaks on the morning of May 6th, with the crescent moon already set; this shower typically produces a meteor every two-three minutes from the south east.

The first quarter moon is high overhead at sunset on May 7th. The waxing gibbous moon passes 3 degrees south of bright red Mars on May 11th, then just south of Saturn on May 14th. In the southern hemisphere, observers will see the Moon passing in front of and occulting Saturn.

This evening is the Full Moon, the Rose or Strawberry Moon. The last weeks of May finds the moon waning in the morning sky, with the moon reaching the last quarter of May on the 21st. On May 25th, the waning crescent moon passes 2.2 degrees north of Venus in the dawn sky. New moon is on May 28th. The waxing crescent moon passes 6 degrees south of Mercury in evening twilight on May 30th.

Mercury comes into the evening sky later in May, with its greatest eastern elongation on May 25th. Venus still dominates the dawn sky, far brighter than any other planet. Mars was at opposition in early April, and is still very bright, but fades is the faster earth is leaving it behind. Jupiter is still well placed of early evening sky in Gemini, but will be getting lost in Sun’s glare by June. This is the month for Saturn, which comes to opposition on May 10th, rising in the east in Libra at sunset. This photo shows Saturn with its rings about as open as they now appear in the telescope. You can also spot its large moon Titan with small telescopes, but the smaller moons require at least a 6" scope.

The winter constellations will soon be swallowed up in the Sun’s glare, but Orion is still visible, with its famed Orion Nebula, M-42, seen below the three stars marking his famed belt. Dominating the southwest is the Dog Star, Sirius, brightest star of the night sky. When Sirius vanishes into the Sun’s glare in two months, this sets the period as "Dog Days".

The brightest star in the NW is Capella, distinctively yellow in color. It is a giant star, almost exactly the same temperature as our Sun, but about 100X more luminous. Just south of it are the stellar twins, the Gemini, with Castor closer to Capella, and Pollux closer to the Little Dog Star, Procyon.

Overhead, the Big Dipper rides high. Good scouts know to take its leading pointers north to Polaris, the famed Pole Star. For us, it sits 30 degrees high in the north, while the rotating earth beneath makes all the other celestial bodies spin around it from east to west. If you drop south from the bowl of the Big Dipper, Leo the Lion rides high. Note the Egyptian Sphinx is based on the shape of this Lion in the sky.

Taking the arc in the Dipper’s handle, we "arc" SE to bright orange Arcturus, the brightest star of spring. Cooler than our yellow Sun, and much poorer in heavy elements, some believe its strange motion reveals it to be an invading star from another smaller galaxy, now colliding with the Milky Way in Sagittarius in the summer sky.

Moving almost perpendicular to the plane of our Milky Way, Arcturus was the first star in the sky where its proper motion across the historic sky was noted, by Edmund Halley. Just east of Arcturus is Corona Borealis, the "northern crown", a shapley Coronet that Miss America would gladly don, and one of few constellations that look like their name. The bright star in the crown’s center is Gemma, the Gem Star.

Spike south to Spica, the hot blue star in Virgo, then curve to Corvus the Crow, a four sided grouping. As noted earlier, Mars shines bright red just west of Spica this month. Inn adjacent Libra we find the ringed wonder Saturn for the next several months.

To the northeast Hercules rises, with his body looking like a butterfly. It contains one of the sky’s showpieces, M-13, the globular cluster faintly visible with the naked eye. Find it with binoculars midway on the top left wing of the cosmic butterfly, then take a look with a larger telescope and you will find it resolved into thousands of stars!

Read past issues of the Sky at Night