The month of May has finally arrived, and you know what the means, spring has sprung! The days are longer and brighter, the promise of warmer weather and (most importantly) there’s not one, but two bank holiday weekends! If you are anything like me, you’ll be doing some stargazing. But, what exactly is there to look out for this month? Well, let me tell you.
Early this May you are in for a treat as it’s possible to see shooting stars from the Eta Aquarids meteor shower. They will peak between midnight and dawn on 6th May radiating from an eastern direction low down on the horizon. Meteors are the leftover comet fragments and bits from broken asteroids, and at certain times of the year the Earth passes through these debris trails. This allows the bits to collide with our atmosphere where they disintegrate to create fiery streaks across the sky.
The Eta Aquarids meteor shower is a moderately active shower associated with Hailey Comet producing up to 30 meteor per hour and is best viewed from a dark location. Like most meteor showers, the name comes from the constellation they appear to radiate from; in this case the constellation Aquarius. More specifically it is named after the brightest star in the constellation of Aquarius, Eta Aquarri. So, here’s hoping the weather is favorable and let’s keep our eyes peeled for some shooting stars!
Now let us turn our attention to the constellations! Using the Plough we can use it to locate our first bright star in the constellation of Boötes, pronounced boo-oh-tes (meaning herdsman). Simply imagine extending the curve of the Plough’s handle downwards until you come to a brilliant ‘orange’ star, this star is called Arcturus, so remember that you have to “arc to Arcturus”. When you join up all the stars in Boötes it resembles a kite flying in the night sky! Arcturus is a red giant star and the 4th brightest star in the night sky making it very easy to identify. Arcturus was thought to be like our Sun but has now passed the main sequence period of its lifespan, instead of fusing hydrogen like our sun, Arctutus is now fusing helium in its core, causing it to expand.
Moving across the sky we come to the constellation of Canes Venatici, who are Boötes’ hunting dogs. Although not very well known and only made up of two stars, within Canis Venatici we can find M51 or the Whirlpool Galaxy. In 1845 Irish astronomer William Parsons while using the 72-inch reflecting telescope at Birr Castle Co Offlay was the first to discover the spiral nature of this “nebulae”. It was not until the 1920’s that astronomers understood that these “spiral nebulae” were actually distant galaxies. So, not only does the Whirlpool Galaxy have a link to Ireland, but it was also the very first spiral galaxy to be identified.
Coming back to Arcturus once more, imagine drawing a straight line downwards to help us find a brilliant blue-white star. This star is called Spica, so remember you have to “spike to Spica”. Spica is found in the constellation of Virgo the Maiden who represents the Goddess of Corn and Agriculture and although not make up of many bright stars, Virgo makes up for it in galaxies. Look towards the upper region of the ‘bowl’ of the Y shape in the constellation of Virgo and here is a great place to find galaxies. This is where you will find the Virgo Cluster, there are approximately 2000 galaxies in this cluster and astronomers estimate that it covers a total volume of space with a diameter of 15 million light-years across. Although for the best viewing you will need a good telescope to spot these amazing structures!
At the end of the May we are also treated to a full Moon, known as the Flower moon. In many cultures it referred to as the Flower Moon thanks to the abundance of blooming flowers as we come into the springtime. This full moon however is not your average full moon but a ‘supermoon’ meaning that it will appear a little brighter and larger in the sky than normal. This happens when the full moon coincides with the moon’s closest approach to Earth in its orbit, making this the perfect opportunity to get the telescope out and do some moongazing, and see if you can spot some craters!