EYES ON THE NIGHT SKY - MAY 2020
Welcome to our second edition of Eyes on the Night Sky at Home. As spring is well advanced, the Sun sets later, rises earlier, resulting in less true darkness to see faint galaxies and nebulae. However, there are some opportunities to study some planets, and fingers crossed, there may even be a bright comet to see during the month of May! We will also get to know the Moon in more detail, whether you have binoculars, telescopes or just your eyes.
The Moon will be fully illuminated on 7th May, where this is also known as the Full Flowering Moon, because at this time of year, the meadows bloom with an array of colourful wildflowers. The New Moon is on 22nd May.
If you have binoculars, telescopes or just your eyes, we will look at a few interesting Lunar features this month. Did you know the Moon has place names for all the craters, highlands, maria (also known as seas) and other features, such as fault lines, ridges and rilles (valleys)? We will explore a few in more detail:
Also known as the ‘Sea of Crises’, this can be seen with the unaided eyes – look for a faint patch of darker grey on the western side – it can be seen when the Moon is full. Use your binoculars to see if you can spot any of its craters along the very flat floor with a wrinkled edge. On 25th May, use a telescope to see the Sun cast shadows into Mare Crisium.
This area is known as a basin which requires binoculars to see it. It is quite dark, which is a result of lava flooding over it a very long time ago. Situated at the seven o' clock position, this is best seen from 10pm on 5th and 6th May, to see long shadows - but can be studied when the Moon is more illuminated. Look for the high wall to the south of the basin and the stark shadows in the craters surrounding it.
This impact crater lies three quarters of the way straight up from the Moon’s southern point. Use binoculars to spot this crater. If you have a telescope, scan the floor of the crater for additional craterlets. 10pm on 1st, 2nd, 29th and 3th May are the best times to see it.
There are some interesting planets to study this month if you have access to a good horizon, as they are not well placed (high in the sky). All you need is a small telescope to see them.
If you have been having trouble spotting Mercury, the evenings of 21st and 22nd May provides a perfect opportunity to use another solar system object to find it. Look at the northwestern horizon at around 10pm and you will see the bright planet Venus. Just below Venus, Mercury lies 2° and you may need binoculars to see it.
Make the most of this beautiful ‘evening star’ Venus as it will set with the Sun towards the end of the month – or move into an inferior conjunction position; it passes between the Earth and the Sun and the light makes it difficult to see the planet. If you are able to fix your binoculars to a tripod, you may be able to detect the crescent phase of this planet.
© Venus in Crescent Phase, taken during daylight by Dave Eagle
Fans of the red planet Mars will have to get up at around 3.45am at the beginning of the month and 2.25am at the end, to see it rise from the southeastern horizon.
Jupiter becomes the brightest object in the morning sky this month, as it rises at 1am at the beginning of May and around midnight at the end. Although not well placed for opportunities to see Jupiter’s features, the early morning skies may be still enough to catch a glimpse of its bands and the Great Red Spot. Those that want to see the largest storm on Jupiter, here are some suggested times to see it:
7th May 2.30am onwards, 14th May 2.15am, 17th May 1.45am, 19th May 2.30am and 31st May 1.35am
Finally, Saturn. This fascinating planet rises 2.30am, a few minutes after Jupiter at beginning of the month and 12.45am at the end of month. Both planets will rise in tandem through the May. The top part of the ring system will be well presented to observers on earth and steady skies will reveal the Cassini division.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Will there be a bright comet this month?
Image Credit © Gerald Rhemann. This was captured in the extremely dark skies of Namibia in mid April.
All going well, there may be a bright comet in our skies in May. Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN) is expected to reach perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) on 27th May. The brightness of comets is very difficult to predict but astronomers have stated that the comet is currently in outburst mode. It is predicted Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN) may even reach unaided eye visibility at the middle of the month, as travels from the southern hemipshere to the north.
We may be able to see it on the low northeastern horizon from 4am. It approaches the constellation of Perseus, near the star Algol on the 20th and throughout the month remains low on the horizon. Let’s hope it doesn’t disintegrate like Comet Atlas, that was expected to be bright last month.
Constellation of the Month
Virgo is the constellation for May. Well placed in the southern skies around 10pm, it is a wonderful constellation to explore with a telescope if you like galaxies as it contains a massive cluster of galaxies called the Virgo Cluster. It contains nearly 2000 galaxies and is in the heart of the Virgo Supercluster.
In Greek Mythology, Virgo represents Persephone, the daughter of goddess Demeter, who ruled over the harvest. Long ago, the Earth was in perpetual spring, until the evil god of the underworld abducted Persephone. Demeter, in her grief, neglected her role as the bringer of fruitfulness and fertility. As a result, parts of the world suffered a long, cold winter and others, a long, hot and pestilence-ridden summer. Zeus saved the day and the whole of humanity by ordering Persephone not to eat upon her negotiated release. Unfortuntely, the god of the underworld gave Persephone a pomegranate, knowing that in her hunger and thirst, she would consume it. However, because of that fruit, Persephone had to return to the god of the underworld for four months a year. Whenever Persephone returned to Demeter, spring would bloom upon the earth but when she had to fulfil her obligation to the god of the underworld, the winter season would follow in her stead until she came home the following year.