SKY GUIDE: This map represents the night sky as it appears over Maine during May. The stars are shown as they appear at 10:30 p.m. early in the month, at 9:30 p.m. at midmonth, and at 8:30 p.m. at month’s end. To use the map, hold it vertically and turn it so that the direction you are facing is at the bottom. Sky Chart prepared by Seth Lockman

The month of May is named for the Greek goddess Maia, who is the goddess of the earth and plants. This month will be packed with drama as the northern hemisphere of our planet really begins to awaken and the most subtle and beautiful shades of green start spreading across our landscape.

Be sure to get outside under the warming night skies as much as possible this month. The great morning planetary parade continues to unfold, offering us a slightly different view each morning. Only Mercury remains in the evening sky, and even our first planet will join all of the others in the morning sky later next month in perfect order from Mercury through Saturn, which is a very rare occurrence, about once in a hundred years.

Then we get to see tiny pieces of the most famous of all comets, Halley’s, burn up high in our atmosphere upon re-entry as the Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks on May 6. We may also get lucky and have a chance to witness a comet become very bright early this month in Taurus. The last bonus for this prolific month will be one of the longest total lunar eclipses physically possible as the full Flower moon passes deep into our conical 870,000-mile-long shadow always stretching into space away from the sun it trails us on our endless journeys.

Our two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, begin this month just half a degree apart in the morning sky one hour before sunrise. Venus is six times brighter than the King of the Planets, which is about half a billion miles away, compared to just a hundred million miles for Venus, one of our next-door neighbors in space. Then keep watching as Jupiter climbs higher looking for its next encounter even as Venus sinks lower.

Orange Mars will catch up with Jupiter by the end of the month. They will be just half a degree apart again, but this time Jupiter is 15 times brighter than our other next-door neighbor. Watch closely as a waning crescent moon nicely spotlights each of the four bright planets in this fairly rare unfolding morning parade from Mars through Venus from May 25-May 27.

Saturn rises around 3 a.m. at the beginning of this month in Capricorn the Sea Goat and it will rise by 1 a.m. by the end of the month, still in the same constellation since it spends just over two years in each of the 12 zodiac constellations because it is twice as far away as Jupiter, moves slower in our sky and has a longer distance to travel. Keep watching each clear morning about one hour before sunrise as this celestial planetary dance continues, and as it gets even more dramatic next month as Mercury joins the quartet.

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Mercury can now be seen low in our western evening sky in Taurus just above the Pleiades open star cluster and just below the slender waxing crescent moon on the evening of May 2, 45 minutes after sunset. Keep watching as the moon recedes 12 degrees east each evening, leaving Mercury and the Pleiades further and further behind. Then Mercury drops below our western horizon about a week later, only to show up again in the morning sky. Mercury does this about six times a year and Venus will switch from morning to evening planet about every nine months.

The third good meteor shower of each year will peak on Friday morning May 6, but will last for about a week. The other two were the Quadrantids on Jan. 4 and the Lyrids on April 22, which is also Earth Day each year. The Eta Aquarids will all appear to be coming out of the water jug in Aquarius, just west of the circlet in Pisces and the Great Square in Pegasus. The moon will only be six days old, so it will set around midnight, well before the earth will pass through most of these meteors.

You can expect up to 30 meteors per hour as you will be watching tiny sand grain-sized pieces of Halley’s Comet bombard us at 40 miles per second as they disintegrate about 70 miles high in our atmosphere, just about at the official edge of space where our thin blue inviting and life-sustaining atmosphere turns black and deadly. The comet itself is about as far away as it can get during its 76-year interval between returns. It last visited us in 1985 and 1986 and is due back in 2062. It is 3.2 billion miles away now, over 5 hours at the speed of light, out past Neptune and not far from Pluto. Halley’s Comet is part of the 20 or so comets that Neptune has captured, changing their orbit from where they were in the Oort’s cloud, the source of all of our comets. By comparison, Jupiter with its much stronger gravitational fields has captured over 400 comets in its family.

The major highlight for this month will be a very long total lunar eclipse of the full Flower Moon. It will be entirely visible for the eastern half of this country and all of Central and South America. Unlike the one in November of last year, this one will begin at a reasonable time with the moon entering the penumbra, or thinner part of Earth’s shadow at 9:32 p.m., and the umbra at 10:27 p.m. It will be completely immersed in our shadow from 11:29 p.m. to 12:53 a.m. and not completely exit the penumbra until 2:50 a.m. That’s just 10 minutes before Saturn rises with the rest of the parade of morning planets breaking over the eastern horizon an hour or so later, as if to join the celebration to see what just happened in the sky.

Every total lunar eclipse is always unique and distinct. The exact colors range from a light orange to deeper coppery oranges to all shades of red to dark gray to almost black and disappearing from our sight. A good way to think of how the dramatic and ever-changing subtle hues of orange and red are created on the moon as our atmosphere bends or refracts the sunlight back onto our only natural satellite is to notice that what you are really seeing during that memorable hour of immersion is the combined effect of all of the sunrises and sunsets on Earth projected onto the moon simultaneously.

So enjoy this unusually long lunar eclipse along with everything it can teach you about intersecting shadows and the tremendous motions always happening on our solar system. The moon will look much more real and three-dimensional as it progresses through our shadow. At 230,000 miles away, it is just over one second away at the speed of light, so it really is quite close. Try to get some good pictures of this event as you are outside observing the entire sky. The next one visible for us will only be one eclipse season away, Nov. 8 of this year, which is also Edmund Halley’s birthday.

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MAY HIGHLIGHTS

May 1: Venus and Jupiter are just half a degree apart in the morning sky an hour before sunrise.

May 2: The waxing crescent moon, orange Aldebaran, Mercury and the Pleiades form a graceful arc in our western evening sky one hour after sunset. Comet PanSTARRS may also be visible.

May 4: The moon passes near the dwarf planet Ceres, our largest asteroid.

May 5: Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961 aboard Freedom 7.

May 6: The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks this morning.

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May 8: First quarter moon is at 8:21 p.m.

May 14: Our first space station, Skylab, is launched in 1973.

May 16: Full moon is at 12:14 a.m. This is also called the Flower, Milk, or Planting Moon. A total lunar eclipse will happen tonight as the moon passes right through our shadow.

May 22: The moon passes 4 degrees south of Saturn this morning. Last quarter moon is at 2:43 p.m.

May 24: Jupiter and Mars rise together in the east.

May 25: Jupiter, Mars, and the moon form a nice trio with Venus nearby.

May 26: The moon passes half a degree south of Venus this morning.

May 28: Mars is just half a degree from Jupiter this morning.

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


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