Here are the monthly sky watch highlights. Each month, we share the wonders of the universe to help you explore the night sky from your own backyard. (Note: Times listed below are ET.)
by Bob Berman, as featured in
The Old Farmer's Almanac
Saturn reaches opposition on the 10th. This is the brightest and best opposition since 2005, because the rings are now very "open," their edges virtually encircling the entire planet. The rings can be seen through any telescope magnification above 30x.
On the 3rd and again on the 31st, Jupiter is above the Moon, but the Giant Planet is getting lower each evening and will soon be gone.
The Moon forms an all-night pair with Mars to its left on the 10th, before passing to the right of Saturn on the 13th. On the 25th the Moon stands to the right of Venus, which, at magnitude -40.0, has now lost more than half of its light since February and remains low at dawn.
Astronomer Jeff DeTray has created the sky map below to help you navigate the heavens!
Visit Jeff's site at AstronomyBoy.com
This month's highlights: Astronomy Day and a possible meteor storm.
Astronomy Day on May 10
The celebration of Astronomy Day began in 1973 as an outreach project of the Astronomical Association of Northern California. Since then, Astronomy Day has developed into a popular worldwide event. If one Astronomy Day is good, TWO should be even better so it is now celebrated twice a year, in the Spring and Fall. As befits a celebration of astronomy, the event is always conducted on a Saturday near the date of a first quarter Moon. This carefully chosen timing means that the Moon is available to be obserbed but not so bright as to spoil the view of other celestial objects. This year's Astronomy Days are May 10 and October 4. In some locales, the entire preceding week is celebrated as Astronomy Week.
Observatories, planetariums, and science museums schedule events for Astronomy Day. These often include daytime observing of the Sun and nighttime observing of the Moon, stars, and planets. Talks and demonstrations about astronomy are usually a part of the day's program. Many astronomy clubs conduct public outreach on Astronomy Day (and night) as well. If there is an astronomy club in your area, check with them to see if they have any planned activities. Find a list of astronomy clubs and organizations at: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-clubs-organizations/
Sky map produced using Chris Marriott's Skymap Pro
Meteor Day on May 24
Two weeks after Astronomy Day may become known as Meteor Day for those willing to stay up late.
In the early hours of May 24, the Earth will pass through a stream of debris left behind by Comet 209P/LINEAR. This small comet orbits the Sun every 5 years and like all comets leaves a trail of debris in its wake. Cometary debris particles are typically quite small—like bits of dust or grains of sand. Nevertheless, when they strike the Earth's atmosphere each particle can briefly become visible as it burns up due to friction with the atmosphere. We see the burning particles as meteors—shooting stars -- quick, bright streaks in the night sky.
The Earth has never encountered this specific debris stream before, so astronomers don't know how dense it is. If it is moderately dense, we will see a nice meteor shower, a couple of dozen shooting stars per hour. However, some experts think we may encounter an extremely dense stream of debris, resulting in a more intense meteor shower of perhaps 200 meteors per hour. And there is an outside chance of a brief meteor STORM, during which the rate could reach several hundred meteors per hour. The truth is, we just don't know what to expect, and the only way to find out is to watch!
Geographically, those of us in the United States and southern Canada are best placed to observe this event. To watch this or any meteor shower, you need nothing more than your own eyes, a dark location away from city lights, and a reclining lawn chair or sleeping bag on the ground. Nights can be chilly even in late May, so come prepared with warm clothes and your favorite hot beverage.
If the predictions are correct, the meteor shower or storm will reach its peak at about 3:00 a.m. Eastern time on May 24 (2:00 a.m. Central, 1:00 a.m. Mountain, 12:00 midnight Pacific). However, you are almost certain to see meteors well before the peak, so get out there early.
Important: The meteors may be seen in any part of the sky, even though they will appear to radiate from a point in the faint constellation Camelopardalis, as shown on this month's Sky Map. But don't simply stare in the direction of Camelopardalis. Bad idea! You'll see the most meteors by looking toward the darkest, most open region of sky that is not blocked by trees or buildings. Remember, the meteors may appear anywhere in the sky.
In the unlikely event that the meteor shower is a bust, there are always other sights to see in the heavens. Check out the bright planet Jupiter, off to the West. And if you are a fan of the book and movie "Contact," look toward the northeast to see the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra. In "Contact," author Carl Sagan imagines mankind's first message from an alien civilization coming from the region of Vega.
Explore the sky night from your own backyard. A printable black and white map is provided below!
Click for Printable Sky Map (PDF)
Just click, print, and bring outside!