The month of May is named after Maia, the Roman goddess of fertility, whose name means “the great one.” Early May marks the halfway point of spring for us in the northern hemisphere.
This will be a great month to get outside to enjoy the annual reawakening of Earth along with warmer nights to marvel at the much greater celestial treasures just out of our reach above us which are always awake.
As flowers and plants start to emerge from the ground and tender young, pale green leaves transform our trees and terrestrial landscape, so the celestial landscape will also offer us many wonders this month.
Saturn will reach opposition on May 10; Mars is still close to its best in 26 months; there will be a good meteor shower on May 4 along with a brand new meteor shower on the May 24 that could be the best shower since the amazing Leonids on Nov. 18, 2001; the two largest asteroids are drifting closer together in Virgo; and a new Comet Panstarrs sweeps by the Whirlpool galaxy near the Big Dipper.
Saturn will rise at sunset on May 10 in the constellation of Libra, just one constellation to the east of Mars. It will reach its highest point in our sky at midnight and not set until sunrise. That is called opposition, when a superior planet is directly opposite the sun from Earth. That is the best time to see a planet because it is at its biggest and brightest because it is physically closest to Earth. That also marks the halfway point through a planet’s retrograde loop that it appears to trace in the sky as Earth speeds past it in our continual orbits around the sun.
The ringed jewel of our solar system will look absolutely stunning through a telescope this whole month and next. The rings are tilted open at 22 degrees and you should be able to see five of its 62 moons (Titan, Tethys, Dionne, Rhea and Iapetus). Mimas and Enceladus are a little fainter and could be seen with a slightly larger telescope. The other 55 moons are too small and several of them are within the ring system. Iapetus is very interesting because one side of it is very bright, reflecting 50 percent of the sunlight, and the other side is very dark, reflecting only 5 percent of any sunlight that strikes its coal-black surface.
When marveling at the intricacy and beauty of Saturn’s paper-thin ring system – only about 30 feet thick – remember that a huge lake the size of Lake Superior was just discovered below the surface of Enceladus. This means that Enceladus, along with Titan, which also has underground water, are excellent places for life to exist in our solar system.
Giant jets of icy material are continually spouting out of Enceladus near its South Pole, forming the invisible E ring around Saturn. There is also another, much larger, invisible ring around Saturn discovered five years ago with an infrared telescope. Another moon, Phoebe, orbits inside this vast ring and contributes material to its very tenuous ice and dust nature. This giant, diffuse new ring covers fully 1 degree, or the width of two full moons, around the much smaller visible part of Saturn.
Remember that epic photograph taken with the Cassini spacecraft last July 19. Everything was lined up perfectly as Saturn, along with some of its invisible rings, was dramatically backlit by the sun, essentially like a solar eclipse from another planet. The most meaningful and dramatic part of that memorable image was the fact that Earth and its moon, along with Mars and Venus, were also visible in that stunning photo, each existing only as one single pixel among all the other information in that incredible image.
So now when you look at the softly glowing golden glow of the ringed planet hanging in our sky, be aware of how much more is going on there. Look back at Earth from 1 billion miles away, or over one hour at the speed of light, and you will slowly obtain a vast new cosmic perspective of the larger context we find ourselves in which will engender a much greater appreciation of our own home solar system and the vastness that lies beyond.
Mars is still shining with a brilliant orange hue in Virgo, just to the west of Saturn. Mars is one full magnitude, or two and a half times brighter than Saturn. Jupiter in Gemini is another full magnitude brighter than Mars, or over six times brighter than Saturn.
The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks on the morning of May 6. You could expect up to 40 meteors per hour that morning. We will be traveling through comet dust from that most famous of all comets, Halley’s. That will happen again on Oct. 21, since we pass through the debris trail of Halley’s Comet twice a year, six months apart, similar to eclipse seasons.
We will experience a new meteor shower on the morning of May 24 around 1 a.m as we pass through the debris trail of Comet 209P/LINEAR for the first time. This shower should produce at least 100 meteors per hour and could easily produce much higher numbers than that, perhaps even rivaling the amazing Leonid meteor shower of Nov. 18, 2001 that produced nearly 1,000 meteors per hour, which is called a meteor storm.
The two brightest asteroids, Ceres and Vesta, will be drifting closer together in the constellation of Virgo, just 15 degrees to the northeast of brilliant Mars. You will need binoculars to spot Ceres, but you may be able to see Vesta without binoculars if you know exactly where to look. They will be just over 2 degrees apart and they will be less than 1 degree apart by early July.
A new comet Panstarrs should reach eighth magnitude and will glide 2 degrees north of the Whirlpool galaxy, just below the Big Dipper on May 1. Then it will drift westward from there.
Our first planet, Mercury, will put on a nice show in the evening sky during the last part of this month as it becomes visible in Taurus, just below Jupiter in Gemini, low in the west, northwestern sky about one hour after sunset.
• May 4. Moon passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter this evening.
• May 6. First quarter moon is at 11:15 p.m. ET. The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks this morning.
• May 10. Saturn reaches opposition. This is also National Astronomy Day.
• May 11. The waxing gibbous moon passes 3 degrees south Mars this evening.
• May 14. The moon passes less than one degree south of Saturn this evening. Full moon is at 3:16 p.m.
• May 21. Last quarter moon is at 8:59 a.m. Mars will end its retrograde loop today.
• May 24. A new meteor shower will peak this morning.
• May 25. The moon passes 2 degrees north of Venus.
• May 28. New moon at 2:40 p.m.
• May 30. The waxing crescent moon passes 6 degrees south of Mercury this evening.