The month of May is named after the goddess Maia, which represents growth. That is what this hemisphere of the earth is now experiencing as spring continues to unfold and the landscape slowly and steadily transforms itself into the deeper greens of summer.

The sky above us also continues to change, with each week and month offering new vistas into the space we all share just beyond Earth. Three of the five brightest planets will be nearly evenly lined up along the ecliptic in the evening sky in May, with the fourth one, Jupiter, rising around 3 a.m.

We are finally losing the Winter Hexagon and Orion in May, but not before Venus and the waxing crescent moon glide past some nice star clusters in Gemini. There will even be another meteor shower caused by the most famous of all comets, Halley’s.

Looking west-northwest 45 minutes after sunset, you will see brilliant Venus hovering in Taurus and Gemini. Our sister planet will pass very close to M35 in Gemini on May 21, but you will need binoculars to really see this nice open star cluster. Start looking for the very slender waxing crescent moon on Friday the 14th. The moon will glide 12 degrees closer to Venus along the ecliptic the next evening, and it will be passed Venus on the 16th and 17th.

Mars continues to fade in our sky as it rapidly glides eastward into Leo. It is already well past the Beehive Star Cluster in Cancer, which you can easily see without binoculars.

Saturn is the next planet in our journey through the sky along the ecliptic. It can be seen in the constellation of Virgo and is also slowly fading as it is getting farther away. Saturn will end its retrograde, or westward motion in the sky on the last day of May. The ringed planet was at its best at opposition on the first day of spring this year on March 21. It started its retrograde motion two months before that. Saturn spends about four months each year in retrograde motion and eight months in direct or prograde, eastward motion.

Jupiter rises around 3 a.m. in Pisces. Watch as a waning crescent moon glides just above Jupiter and just below the Great Square in Pegasus one hour before sunrise during the mornings of the 9th through the 11th.

The meteor shower in May will be the Eta Aquarids, which will peak on May 5 and 6. The moon will be around last quarter, so it will interfere when it rises around midnight. This shower is caused by Halley’s Comet. The annual October 21st Orionid meteor shower is also caused by this famous comet.

So if you didn’t see Halley’s Comet back in 1985 and 1986, you can see tiny sand-grain-sized pieces of this comet twice a year and they rain into our atmosphere 70 miles up at 30 miles a second.

Look for the full moon on May 27 getting very close to the orange supergiant star Antares in the constellation of Scorpius. At 700 times the diameter of our sun, Antares is one of the largest stars in our whole galaxy of over 200 billion stars. If Antares were placed where our sun is in the sky, only 93 million miles away or 8.3 minutes at the speed of light, the orbit or Earth and even Mars would be inside of this giant star.


May 1. On this day in 1949, Gerard Kuiper, after whom the Kuiper Belt is named which Pluto is now a part of, discovered Nereid, the second largest moon of Neptune after Triton. Comet Hyakutake also made its closest approach to the sun on this day in 1996.

Not as famous or widely seen as Hale-Bopp exactly one year later, Hyakutake was also a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime comet. I well remember seeing this wonderful comet one night around 3 in the morning stretching nearly halfway across the sky. It actually got within 10 million miles of earth, which is 10 times closer than the approach of Hale-Bopp the next year.

May 5. The Eta Aquarid Meteor shower peaks this night and the next.

May 6. Last quarter moon is at 12:15 a.m.

May 9. The waning crescent moon will pass near Jupiter this morning and the next one hour before sunrise.

May 13. New moon is at 9:04 p.m.

May 14. On this day in 1973, Skylab was launched. It came back down earlier than expected due to strong solar wind activity causing extra drag on our atmosphere. The ISS has since taken its place and will probably stay up for many more years.

May 15. The thin crescent moon is near Venus this evening and the next.

May 19. The moon is about 6 degrees below Mars this evening.

May 20. First quarter moon is at 7:43 p.m.

May 27. Full moon is at 7:07 p.m. This is also called the Milk or Planting Moon.

May 29. On this day in 1919, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity passed its first real test during a total solar eclipse. It was proved that the light from a star behind the sun was bent by exactly the amount that his theory predicted.

Now we have also seen gravitational lensing, when the gravity of galaxies along our line of sight severely bend the light of galaxies behind the closer galaxies so that multiple images of those galaxies appear. 

Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.


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