As the weather warms in the northern hemisphere, there’s nothing quite like a night of stargazing. While many of us are unable to travel for astronomy meetups and star parties, we can still set up in our backyards and local parks to enjoy the May night sky.
This month, we’ll receive a series of astronomical treats: planetary close approaches, meteors, and even a few special events with the Moon. Never mind the fact that the Milky Way core is slowly rising as the month goes on and you’ll be able to see the that too. The May new moon takes place on May 5th, and the night will be especially dark that evening – as you’ll soon discover.
Throughout this post, I’ve noted where you need binoculars or a telescope to fully appreciate the astronomical event. If you need guidance on investing in a piece of stargazing equipment, be sure to check my list of recommended telescopes and binoculars at every price point.
Without further ado, here are the May night sky events to mark on your astronomical calendar.
This post was originally published in May 2019, and is updated annually, most recently in April 2023.
Featured photo credit: Willi Winzig via Flickr
May 5 – Penumbral Lunar Eclipse
I don’t normally include Penumbral lunar eclipses in my list of monthly events; this is mostly because they’re not super-obvious to the average night sky viewer, and they certainly don’t have the incredible appearance of other lunar eclipses. (If you’re not familiar with the types and science of lunar (and solar) eclipses, I have a whole guide to the different types of eclipses.)
In any case, May is a relatively quiet month, astronomically speaking – so I wanted to include something to at least get us to five events for your calendar. Penumbral eclipse it is!
This month’s penumbral lunar eclipse will be visible to those in Africa, Asia, and Oceania; if you’re in North America like me, the eclipse will occur during the day when the moon is below the horizon. Nevertheless, if you live in the eastern hemisphere, you should absolutely pop your head out to watch the moon dim during the eclipse window (15:15-19:32 UTC).
May 7 – Peak of the η–Aquariid Meteor Shower
Meteorites always wow the crowds, and in May we have two decent chances for such celestial showers. The first one is the Eta Aquariid Meteor Shower, which peaks on the morning of May 7th this year. This is a better show for earthlings near the equator, since the constellation Aquarius – which serves as the meteor shower’s radiant point – will be fairly low in the southern sky.
You can catch this show between late April through most of May every year, but the peak is predicted in the pre-dawn hours of the 7th. The Eta Aquariids typically produce about 40 meteors per hour; not a bad way to kick off the month – especially if you’re not able to see the penumbral lunar eclipse. Speaking of that full moon, it will provide some interference based on the parts of the sky that the moon and Aquarius will be in.
May 9 – Peak of the η-Lyrid Meteor Shower
The Eta Lyrid (η-Lyrid) meteor shower runs from May 3rd to 14th each year, but in 2023, the night of peak activity is likely to occur on May 9th. On this night, you can look in the general direction of the radiant point in the constellation Lyra to try and spot Eta Lyrids streaking across the sky.
While the Eta Lyrids are not a particularly active meteor shower (you can expect an average of 3 meteors per hour during the peak), it’s possible to try and see these meteors both pre-dawn on the 10th and that evening too.
May 13 – Close Approach of the Moon & Saturn
After their close approach almost 2.5 years ago – the Great Conjunction in December 2020 – Saturn and Jupiter have been moving visually further apart in the sky. This means that their monthly conjunctions/close approaches with the Moon have been moving further apart in time too. When they used to occur in close succession, they now occur several nights apart.
In May, Saturn is the first planet to “meet” the Moon in the night sky. On the morning of May 13th, you can spot the Moon and Saturn in the same part of the sky, appearing 2°59′ apart at their closest. This will be too far apart to view with a telescope or binoculars, but you’ll be able to easily hop from the 32% illuminated waning crescent Moon to Saturn.
May 17 – Close Approach/Lunar Occultation of Jupiter
2023 is a big year for lunar occultations – that is, times when the Moon passes in front of other objects in the night sky (from our Earthly perspective, of course). Of course the Moon is always passing in front of stuff, but certain “lunar occultations” are notable.
In May, there is just one of note: the lunar occultation of Jupiter on May 17th. Most of us will just see a close approach between the two (43.1 arcminutes apart at their closest) – but people in a certain part of the world will see them so “close” that the Moon actually passes in front of Jupiter.
What region will that be? Eastern North America and parts of Scandinavia; here‘s a map to show you the region in case you call that part of the world home.
Do you have questions about these astronomical events in the May night sky? Let me know in the comments!