There’s lots to look forward to in the Month of May: the evenings are brighter, there’s the promise of good weather and most importantly – not one, but two bank holiday weekends! There’s also lots to look forward to and look out for in May’s night sky. There’s the chance to see a beautiful meteor shower, and the planets Mars and Mercury make dazzling appearances over the course of the month.

We start the month with much excitement as on the night of the 5th/6th May we should be able to see shooting stars from the Eta Aquarid meteor shower fly across the sky. These are tiny pieces shed by Halley’s Comet burning up in the Earth’s Atmosphere. In the Northern Hemisphere, the shower can produce up to 30 meteors per hour. This show of meteors is best viewed from a dark location after midnight. The thin crescent moon sets early in the evening so visibility should be good.

Image taken of Halley’s Comet in 1986. Credit: NASA

In the evening sky, Mars has the spotlight as it goes below the horizon, setting around midnight. In the night sky, Mars appears with a distinctly red colour, which is apparent even to the unaided eye. This is the result of a high abundance of iron oxide – better known as rust – in its soil. Through a telescope you should be able to see its bright icy polar caps and some of the markings on the surface of Mars. On the 8th May, the Moon and Mars will make a close approach, passing within 3°12′ of each other. The Moon will be 4 days old. The Moon will be at mag -10.2, and Mars at mag 1.7, both in the constellation Taurus.

Mercury steals Mars’ limelight at the end of the month. During the last few days of May, Mercury appears above the horizon in the north-west. As Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, it appears low down on the horizon.  Wait until the Sun is completely below the horizon when viewing Mercury through binoculars, to avoid the risk of damaging your eyes.

Virgo Cluster. Credit: NASA

Now let’s take a closer look at some of the constellations that can be spotted during May. First up, we have the largest constellation in the night sky which also represents the Goddess of Corn and Agriculture. That is, of course, Virgo the Maiden! Look towards the upper region of the ‘bowl’ of the Y shape and you’ll notice it is filled with faint, fussy blobs. These are just a few of the 2000 galaxies that make up the famous Virgo Cluster. Galaxies are not objects found by themselves. Instead they gather together in groups, sometimes in pairs and sometimes in clusters such as the Virgo Cluster. This cluster is known as an irregular cluster because of its sprawling shape and although it is dominated by three giant elliptical galaxies, most of its brighter members are spiral galaxies.

Bootes, Canes Venatici and Coma Berenices. Stellarium

We can use the curve of the Plough’s handle to help us find our next stars and constellations. If you follow the curve of the Plough’s handle you will end up at the bright, red star, Arcturus. This bright star forms the knee of Bootes the Herdsman. When you join up all of the stars in the constellation it looks a bit like a kite flying in the night sky! Canes Venatici (Bootes’ Hunting Dogs) boarder the Herdsman, ready to follow their master on a hunt. Although not very well known, within Canes Venatici, we can find M51 or the Whirlpool Galaxy. This galaxy is of interest to us here at the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium as the Earl of Rosse, who discovered this galaxy, worked very closely with the 3rd Director of Observatory, Romney Robinson. We can also spot a globular cluster called M3 within Canes Venatici. It is roughly 34,000 light-years away and can be easily seen with a telescope.

image of Bootes
Bootes, Canes Venetici and Coma Berenices as seen in the early 1800s. Note the lost constellation of Quadrans Muralis. (Image: © Ian Ridpath)

Last but not least, we have the constellation and story of Coma Berenices (Berenices’ Hair). Look for 3 stars that make a sort of right angle just above Virgo and to the right of Coma Berenices. This is the only constellation that represents a real person. Queen Berenice was the beautiful wife of the King of Egypt. She struck a deal with the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite; if her husband returned safely from war, Berenice would cut off her hair. Her husband returned safely and true to her word, Berenice cut off her hair and placed it in the temple. To their horror, the hair was stolen that night. Thankfully the court astronomer convinced them that Aphrodite was so pleased with the sacrifice that she had placed Berenice’s hair in the heavens.

From meteor showers to galaxy clusters and from whirlpool galaxies to sacrificing the hairs on your head – there’s plenty to see in the night sky this May! Happy Stargazing folks!

By Education Officer, Helen McLoughlin

1 Comment

Mary Thomas · June 7, 2019 at 16:32

Wow, what a great article. So informative! It makes me look at the sky differently now. Keep it up!

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