A cormorant sits on the branches of the trees leaning over the Kennebec River in Waterville on Monday as the full moon rises over Winslow. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The month of May is named after the Greek goddess of the earth, Maia. May Day, or the Gaelic festival of Beltane, marks the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Our landscape is now transforming itself once again into myriad and subtle hues of green as our hemisphere of the earth is slowly and continually tilting more and more toward the sun and our days are getting warmer and longer as a result.

The loons have returned to our lakes and many other birds have returned from the south to sing their wonderful songs for us once again. Listening to the piercing yet plaintive calls of the loons was a great joy as they could instantly transform the mood around any lake. Loons have been on Earth for at least 20 million years, making them the oldest and most primitive living bird. The spring peepers and other frogs are singing up a storm in the evenings, making a strong audible contribution to the natural symphony which is the earth in response to the stars above and the sun which gives everything life. Spring is a time of celebration as life returns once again in its many forms, creating a cosmic harmony all around us.

There are many interesting highlights to watch for this month. They include a very close conjunction of Mercury and Venus, three planets in the evening sky including Mars, the asteroid Vesta in Leo, another comet Atlas near the Big Dipper, a good meteor shower and the Eta Aquarids on May 5. There’s even a total lunar eclipse on May 26, which we will not be able to see any part of from the Northeast but all the rest of this country will get at least a partial eclipse.

Watch as Mercury returns to our evening sky on the first day of May near the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. Venus will be directly below Mercury. Our first planet from the sun will reach greatest eastern elongation on May 17, marking its best evening appearance for this year. Then keep watching as they both get higher and brighter throughout the month low in the western sky half an hour after sunset. They will be at their closest, less than half a degree apart, on May 28.

Through a telescope you will see that Mercury is 35 percent lit, like a miniature waxing crescent moon. Venus is nearly full now since it is just past superior conjunction with the sun and farther away from us than usual. The slender waxing crescent moon along with its reflected earthshine will be just one degree east of Venus on May 12. Then keep watching as it passes by Mercury the next evening and Mars on May 16.

Mars is now in Gemini and continuing its direct eastward motion through our sky as it has been doing all this year. It still sets just before midnight as it tracks through the sky at the rate of one constellation per month, matching our revolution around the sun. Try to keep up with all the latest from the Perseverance Rover and the Ingenuity drone as we keep exploring this planet that we may well be walking around on within just seven more years.

Saturn now rises around 2:30 a.m. in Capricorn. Then Jupiter rises 45 minutes later in Aquarius, about 15 degrees to the east of Saturn. The pair was just one-tenth of a degree apart on the winter solstice last year. Saturn will start its retrograde or westward motion back toward Jupiter on May 23.

There are two asteroids that you can see in Leo now with just a pair of binoculars. They are Vesta, our brightest and second largest asteroid at 330 miles across and Amphitrite at 120 miles across, our fifth largest asteroid. Our four largest asteroids make up half the mass of all of our more than one million identified asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter.

This will be your last chance to see C/2020 R4 (ATLAS). This comet was also discovered by the ATLAS telescopes in Hawaii and you will need a good telescope to see it. This comet will not return to our skies for another 1,000 years. Next month we will have a brighter comet, named 7P/Pons-Winnecke.

The Eta Aquarid meteor shower will peak on the evening of May 5 and the next morning. The moon will be waning crescent, so it will not rise until after midnight. You can expect up to 50 meteors per hour from a very dark sky site. You will be seeing tiny sand grain-sized dust particles of Halley’s Comet burn up 70 miles above us as you watch these meteors. They will all appear to come out of Aquarius, which rises 3 hours before dawn. This famous comet also causes the Orionid meteor shower every Oct. 21 as we pass through its debris trail twice every year.

We are in an eclipse season once again. The full moon this month on May 26 will pass right through our shadow, creating a total lunar eclipse, but it will only be visible in its entirety from our west coast. Then there will be an annular solar eclipse two weeks after that over parts of Russia, Greenland, and Canada. We will get to see a partially eclipsed sun from that one right here in Maine on June 10, which should prepare us for the total solar eclipse that will pass right through Maine less than 3 years later, on April 8 of 2024. I remember well seeing the last one over Idaho near Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons on Aug. 21 of 2017. It was great experience worth every effort you need to make.


May 3: The moon passes 4 degrees south of Saturn this morning. Last quarter moon is at 3:50 p.m.

May 4: The moon passes 5 degrees south of Jupiter this morning.

May 5: The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks. In 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. He did not orbit the earth. That was first done on April 12 of that year by the Russian Yuri Gagarin.

May 11: New moon is at 3 p.m.

In 1930, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago opened and became the first planetarium in this country. Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

May 12: In 1930 the Adler Planetarium in Chicago opened and became the first planetarium in this country. I stopped in there on my way out to the eclipse in 2017. It is well worth visiting if you are in the area. The moon passes near Venus this evening.

May 13: The moon passes near Mercury this evening.

May 14: In 1973 our first orbiting space station, Skylab, was launched. It came down just a few years later because of strong solar winds creating more drag on it than expected.

May 16: The moon passes near Mars this evening.

May 17: Mercury is at greatest eastern elongation. Venus passes 6 degrees north of Aldebaran in Taurus this evening.

May 19: First quarter moon is at 3:13 p.m.

May 23: Saturn starts its retrograde motion this afternoon.

May 25: The moon is at perigee at 222,023 miles from earth this evening.

May 26: Full moon is at 7:14 a.m. This is also called the flower, planting, milk, or frog moon. This will also be another super moon like last month because the moon is within one day of its perigee. So it will appear slightly larger than usual when it rises. It always appears huge right on the horizon anyway because of the “moon illusion.” You will get a nice red and orange color on the moon when it first rises just for a few minutes since you are looking through so much of our atmosphere. So we won’t be able to see the total lunar eclipse, but we will be able to see some of that nice color right when it rises at sunset and once again when it sets at sunrise.

May 28: The first primates, Able and Baker, where launched into space in 1959.

May 29: In 1919 Sir Arthur Eddington, a British astronomer, took some pictures of a total solar eclipse over Africa that proved Einstein’s general theory of relativity correct. He showed that the gravitational field of the sun would bend the light from a star covered by the sun during that eclipse by 1.75 seconds of arc, or twice as much as Newton predicted it would at 0.87 seconds of arc.

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

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