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 night, we’ll receive a series of astronomical treats: a comet, a series of planet-viewing opportunities, and a few Messier objects for good measure. 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 22nd, which is a great night for seeing the darkiest skies possible this month.
If you need a telescope to help enjoy this month’s night sky events, we have a guide to the best stargazing telescopes. From the Meade Polaris 130 (under $200) to the Orion Atlas 8 EQ-G GoTo ($2000), you can find one for your astronomy interest and budget.
Did you know? These are some of the best stargazing events this month – but there are many other interesting events and good nights for stargazing all year long.
Learn more and get your copy of The Night Sky in 2021: When to Go Stargazing All Year Long for just $7.99.
Without further ado, here are the May night sky events to mark on your astronomical calendar.
May 4 – Comet C/2017 T2 at Perihelion
Kicking off the month, the comet C/2017 TC will be at its closest point to the sun, its Perihelion. You’ll need a telescope or binoculars to see C/2017 T2 on this night (or the surrounding nights, including May 13th, when it reaches its brightest), but this circumpolar comet will be visible all night for viewers in the northern hemipsphere.
May 5 – Peak of the η–Aquarid Meteor Shower
Meteorites always wow the crowds, and in May we have two good chances for such celestial showers. The first one is the Aquarid Meteor Shower, which peaks around May 5th/6th. The Moon is facing her night side towards Earth around then, making for easier viewing. However, this is a better show for earthlings near the equator, since Eta Aquarii 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 will be around the 5th of May. The “stars” of this play are actually Halley’s Comet. It is believed that this shower comes from tiny particles in Halley’s comet as Earth intersects dust where the comet’s tail was. Meteorite showers are typically named from their radiant, or the apparent area of the sky they come from, which in this case is the star Eta Aquarii.
May 8 – Peak of the η-Lyrid Meteor Shower
The η-Lyrid meteor shower runs from May 3-14th each year, but in 2020, the night of peak activity is likely to occur on May 8th. On this night, you can look in the general direction of the radiant point in the constellation Lyra to try and spot η-Lyrids streaking across the sky.
While the η-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 8th and that evening too.
May 11 – M5 is Well-Placed
Messier object #5, a globular cluster also called NGC 5904, will reach its highest point in the sky on the night of May 11. Around midnight local time on this night, northern hemisphere stargazers can use binoculars or a telescope to spot M5 in the constellation Serpens.
May 12 – Close Approach of the Moon, Jupiter & Saturn
The two gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, regularly dance with the moon each month, and often have close approaches in close succession; this month, the night to mark on your calendar is the 12th. In both the pre-dawn hours of the 12th, Jupiter and the Moon will appear close in the sky; later that evening Saturn and the Moon will have their turn.
At their closest point (around 3am Pacific time), Jupiter and the Moon will appear within 2°14′ of one another. When Saturn and the Moon appear in close proximity, they will appear within 2°38′ of one another. This is a naked-eye activity, but binoculars will be a handy (but not necessary) tool to see the contrast and closeness between the waning gibbous Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn.
May 14 – Close Approach of the Moon & Mars
After dancing with the gas giants a few nights earlier, the Moon and Mars make a close approach on the night of May 14th. Mars and the Moon will appear 2°36′ apart in the sky just after sundown; as the moon will be moving from gibbous to crescent it will be a great chance to view the Moon’s terminus and dusty Mars in the same part of the night sky.
You don’t need any special gear to view this astronomical event, but a pair of binoculars or a telescope will bring the view into a lot more detail.
May 17 – Close Approach of Jupiter & Saturn
After close approaches with the Moon from our earthly perspective, Jupiter and Saturn will then appear close to one another on the night of May 17th. In the hours after sunset, you can use a telescope to get an up-close view of two neighboring planets when they are within 4°41′ in the sky; if you don’t have any stargazing aids, you’ll also be able to spot these two bright planets with the unaided eye.
May 28 – M4 is Well-Placed
The second Messier object highlighted this month is M4. You will need binoculars or a telescope to see this star cluster. Look to the southeast after sunset, and use a star app to find this object.
M4 is notable for containing some white dwarf stars that are among the oldest in our Milky Way galaxy, clocking in at 13 billion years old. M4 is also home to a millisecond pulsar and is about 75 light years in diameter.
That rounds up our notable events for the month of May. It is amazing to think that every star we can see in the sky without binoculars or telescopes is in our own home galaxy, the Milky Way. Our galaxy extends about 100,000 light-years across and contains all the star clusters we discussed.
Questions about these astronomical events in the May Night Sky? Let us know in the comments!
Featured photo credit: Willi Winzig via Flickr