The month of May brings with it increasingly longer hours of daylight which does make stargazing more tricky and for the real night owls amongst us who are prepared to stay up into the wee small hours; but there’s always something in the sky to more than justify the effort to look up regularly.
Even during the hours of daylight be sure to gaze up – you’ll be surprised at what’s going on when it comes to the formation and movement of the clouds (I’d advise checking out the Cloud Appreciation Society).
The Phases of the Moon
Full Moon: 6th May, 03:35
Last Quarter: 12th May, 21:47
New Moon: 20th May, 23:47
First Quarter: 28th May, 20:16
(times above are in Universal Time, UT)
Mercury can be found in the early morning sky during the first part of May. By the end of the month though it’ll have reached superior conjunction (it’ll be on the opposite side of the Sun from us). There’s some great unprecedented imagary and data coming back from NASA’s MESSENGER project which is in orbit around the closest planet to the Sun.
If you’ve been watching the evening sky regularly over the past few months, you’ll have noticed Venus getting progressively higher in the sky at the same time each night. However, by 16th May that will be changing as the planet appears to come to a stop in the sky before getting increasingly lower in the sky at the same time each night such that come June 5th it’ll be in transit across the Sun. This to-ing and fro-ing in the sky happens as Venus is catching up on Earth and will undertake us on its orbit around the Sun.
Jupiter reaches conjunction on 13th May and will therefore be on the opposite side to the Sun from us and well out of our view. It’s on it’s way to being a planet that rises in the morning just before the Sun – one for the very early birds!
Easily to find in the constellation of Leo this month, is Mars. The red planet is due South by about 20:00, but not really visible till around 21:30 because of the brightness of the setting Sun.
Saturn remains in the constellation of Virgo, close to the bright star Spica. It’s due South around 23:00 and forms a nice line with Arcturus and Spica as shown in the image a little further down the page.
The outermost planets Uranus and Neptune aren’t visible to the naked eye.
The Hunt for Exo-planets
Think you could spot the tell-tale signs of an exoplanet? Take part in a citizen science project called Planet Hunters and help find new worlds around other stars!
Find Your Way Around The Night Sky
Here are some images of what the sky will look like around Midnight on 20th May 2012… the night of a New Moon and the best opportunity to see stars without any moonlight to drown out the view (click to embiggen the images)!
Looking East around midnight on 20th May 2012
Looking South around midnight on 20th May 2012
Looking West around midnight on 20th May 2012
Looking North around midnight on 20th May 2012
Let’s take a look at the constellation of Boötes this month, which was one of the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy’s 48 groups of stars in the Almagest. Boötes is derived from the Greek for herdsman. Mythology often depicts him with his hunting dogs (Canes Venatici) herding the bears (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor) around the sky.You can watch the constellation take shape, by clicking on the animated picture below.
You can view the major stars in Boötes in the image below (click to embiggen).
The 3rd brightest star in our night sky sits within this patch of the sky – the guardian of the bear – Arcturus. This red giant star lies some 36.7 light years away from us.
Nekka is a mistranslation of the Arabic for ‘cattle driver’. The star is 219 light years from Earth.
Alkalurops is the herdsman’s staff, whilst Izar is his girdle. Muphrid is the solitary one and Nadlet, the little ones.
There is also a small satellite galaxy to the Milky Way to be found within the constellation – the Boötes Dwarf Galaxy is approximately 197,00 light years from us and is spheroidal galaxy that appears tidally linked to ours. There are around a dozen dwarf galaxies within around 500,000 light years of us orbiting the Milky Way. The Boötes Dwarf Galaxy is a very faint galaxy though and was only discovered in 2006.
Transit of Venus
Are you ready for the astronomy highlight of 2012!? On the 5th and 6th of June, something wonderful and relatively rare happens. Find out more about the transit of Venus and how to view it safely.
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