One of my favorite activities is pulling out a blanket to lay on and looking up at the dark sky to watch the cosmos unfurl once the curtain of the day is lifted. I have found it is always better to share the spectacle with someone you love, and if you are so lucky, the cherry on top is to be able to tell a story about what you are seeing.
This month brings us many rendezvous with the Moon taking turns dancing with the planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn and dwarf planet Pluto. We also have not one, but two chances to see meteor showers this month. Three different Messier objects are highlighted this month as well, so pull out a blanket, and start looking up!
Where necessary, we have noted (with 🚨🔭) where you may need binoculars or a telescope to help you get the best view of each celestial event. 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.
With that, let’s explore the best night sky events happening in May!
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 7 – Close Approach of the Moon & Mars
Four days after the new moon, we will be able to see Mars and the moon in the same part of the sky. They will appear close to us in the western sky, about 30° above the horizon. Look for the moon, then look for Mars at about the 1:00 position relative to the moon.
For this conjunction, while close, the Moon and Mars will be too far apart to see at the same time with a telescope, so this is a good one to view with binoculars, or even with your naked eye. Since the moon will only be four days old, it will not be bright enough to wash out a good view of Mars.
Curious when else you can easily see Mars in 2019? Check out our guide to the night sky in 2019.
May 10 – Close Approach of the Moon & M44
🚨🔭 Note: Binoculars or a telescope will really help you view this object!
Just a few days after the moon escorts Mars across the sky, the moon will be in conjunction with M44, also known as the “Beehive Cluster.” To the naked eye, it appears as a blurry patch of light. The moon and M44 will be close enough to see together in a telescope. Binoculars will also work. Looking at this with your naked eyes may be difficult since the moon will be so close to M44 and growing brighter.
M44 is about 577 light years from Earth and is one of the closest star clusters to our home planet. Two exoplanets, termed “Hot Jupiters” have been found around two of the 1,000 or so stars in M44.
May 13 – Peak of the α–Scorpiid Meteor Shower & M5 is Well-Placed
🚨🔭 Note: You’ll need binoculars or a telescope to view M5!
The second meteor shower of the month will occur May 14th. The α–Scorpiid meteor show’s radiant is in the southeast, fairly low in the horizon. This shower is a bit difficult to observe, but some lucky viewers have seen meteorites leaving trails that last two minutes! It is believed that these meteorites come from the asteroid 2004 BZ74.
If the Scorpiids are a bust, you might want to try your luck with the star cluster M5. M5 is visible all night, starting as night falls about 30° above the eastern horizon. M5 is faint, but the largest known star cluster in our Milky Way galaxy. It may contain as many as a half-million stars and spans 165 light years across.
May 18 – Close Approach of Venus & Uranus
🚨🔭 Note: You’ll need a telescope to view Uranus!
In the pre-dawn hours of May 18th, Venus and Uranus will have a close approach. This is a great chance to try and spot Uranus, which is typically hard to find without a good star or planet to guide you.
Venus and Uranus will pass within 1°09′ of each other, and you’ll need a telescope to see Uranus. This will also give you a great opportunity to look at Venus closely!
Curious when else you can easily see Venus or Uranus in 2019? Check out our guide to the night sky in 2019.
May 20 – Close Approach of the Moon & Jupiter
Just a few days after the close approach of the moon and Mars, the planet Jupiter will dance across the cosmic floor instep with the moon on May 20th. Look for the pair in the southern sky: the moon will be full, and therefore very bright, but Jupiter will be the second brightest object in the sky all night. Look for Jupiter just to the right of the moon, only about 1° away.
This is a naked-eye activity, but binoculars will be a handy (but not necessary) tool to see the contrast and closeness between the moon and Jupiter.
Curious when else you can easily see Jupiter in 2019? Check out our guide to the night sky in 2019.
May 22 – Close Approach of the Moon & Saturn (& Pluto with a Telescope!)
🚨🔭 Note: You’ll need a telescope to view Pluto!
Just two days after Jupiter and the Moon’s close date, Saturn gets to take a turn with the Moon. Saturn will be in about the same relative position to the moon that Jupiter was in just two days prior. It might be a great time to compare the view of these two gas giants, as you can easily see Jupiter with Saturn and the Moon behind. Saturn will be very close to the moon, less than a degree away to the right. The moon will be a waning gibbous, meaning the night side of the moon is starting to take over from the bright full view of the moon. Try and spot Saturn and Jupiter with your naked eyes, and then take a closer look with a pair of binoculars to see the spectacle.
If you have a telescope (at least 8” or better) then you might get a chance to see the dwarf planet Pluto. Look between Saturn and the moon. Even with a telescope, Pluto is hard to see and is best identified when compared with previous nights as being the spot that appears to move from night to night relative to the background stars. In fact, this movement is where we get the name “planet”, from the Latin word planetes which means “wandering star.”
Curious when else you can easily see Saturn or Pluto in 2019? Check out our guide to the night sky in 2019.
May 28 – Dwarf Planet Ceres at Opposition
🚨🔭 Note: You’ll need a telescope to view Ceres!
Ceres is the final (dwarf) planet in the series of moon companions for the month of May. Like her more famous dwarf planet Pluto, both are smaller than our moon. Our moon will be a waning crescent, while Ceres reaches the point in the sky opposite the sun, with Earth between. Ceres will also be making its closest approach to Earth, termed its perigee, so it will be the optimal time to see Ceres.
It will be high in the sky around midnight local time, in the constellation Ophiuchus. A telescope will be necessary to see this dwarf planet, even at its brightest and largest.
May 29 – M4 is Well-Placed
🚨🔭 Note: You’ll need binoculars or a telescope to view this object!
The third 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.
It has only been in the last few decades that we have been able to peer deeper into space and to find other galaxies beyond our own containing their own treasure of stars. I like to imagine that when I gaze upon the stars in our sky. All we have to do is open our eyes, and keep looking up!
Questions about this month’s events? Let us know in the comments!
Featured photo credit: Willi Winzig via Flickr