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: the moon makes a series of close visual approaches with the planets, a few minor meteor showers will peak, and a total lunar eclipse will bathe part of the world in a reddish glow. 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 11th, which is a great night for seeing the darkest 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 $5.99 (on sale from $7.99).
Without further ado, here are the May night sky events to mark on your astronomical calendar.
Featured photo credit: Willi Winzig via Flickr
May 3 & 4 – Close Approach of the Moon & Saturn/Jupiter
We’re kicking off may with a pair of close visual approaches – and if you’ve followed these night sky guides over the months, you can probably guess them! Yep: it’s Saturn and Jupiter, each appearing close to the Moon in turn.
First up is Saturn (as it has been since the Great Conjunction back in December). In the morning hours of May 3rd, the Moon and Saturn will appear close at just 4°09′ apart. This is nowhere near as close as the Great Conjunction, but it’s a good opportunity to use the waning gibbous Moon to spot Saturn.
The next morning, Jupiter gets its turn and has a close approach with the Moon. They’ll appear 4°36′ apart – again, too far for the view of a telescope or pair of binoculars. The Moon will be slightly more favorable and a day closer to its New phase, but still brightly illuminated to guide you.
May 6 – 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 around May 6th 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 will be around the 6th of May. The Eta Aquariids typically produce about 40 meteors per hour; not a bad way to kick off the month! Best of all, the Moon will be a waning crescent, so unlikely to produce much interference.
May 8 – Peak of the η-Lyrid Meteor Shower
The Eta Lyrid (η-Lyrid) meteor shower runs from May 3-14th each year, but in 2021, 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 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 8th and that evening too.
May 17 – Mercury Reaches its Evening Peak
Ah little Mercury… so hard to spot! Mercury has several points throughout the year where it appears high enough above the horizon before or after the sun to be seen; the next opportunity is around May 17th, when Mercury will reach its highest point in the evening sky.
To try and spot Mercury, you’ll need a clear, unobstructed view of the western horizon. Mercury will only reach appear at 19° above the horizon, after the sun sets. You don’t need a telescope to spot Mercury, but remember to protect your eyes; the sun can do damage within a few seconds if you look directly at it even during sunset.
May 26 – Total Lunar Eclipse Across the Pacific
It’s been a while since we last had a total lunar eclipse; the last total lunar eclipse occurred on the night of January 20, 2019! But for many in western North America and far eastern Asia, the chance returns again with a total lunar eclipse that will occur in the early morning hours of May 26th (or late on the 26th if you’re far east).
The best views of the eclipse will occur in the heart of the Pacific – think Hawaii. But for those on the west coast, a short phase of totality will happen in the 4am hour, according to Time and Date. We’ve got a whole guide to viewing the lunar eclipse if you are going to be in the area of totality and want to try and see this one.
May 28 – Close Approach of Venus & Mercury
Being in 3rd place isn’t all bad – here on Earth, we’re in a great ‘Goldilocks’ zone for climate that allows life to thrive and you to be reading this article. But there is something special about the two planets further inside our orbit, closer to the sun. If you want the chance to see them both in a very close approach, May 28th is the evening to try.
After sunset on the night of the 28th, tiny Mercury and bright Venus will make a close approach, appearing just 0°25′ apart in the sky. This is an excellent chance to pull out your telescope and train it on both of these distant neighbors, especially if you’ve never seen Mercury before!
May 30 – Close Approach of the Moon & Saturn
We’re capping off May where we began – with another close visual approach between the Moon and Saturn. As expected, these occur roughly every 28 days based on the moon’s orbit. On the 30th when the close approach occurs, the pair will appear 4°10′ apart in the dawn sky. This is too far to fit in the view of a single telescope, but a nice morning opportunity if you missed it earlier in the month due to weather or, you know, sleeping!
Do you have questions about these astronomical events in the May night sky? Let me know in the comments!