You may need to stay up later in the evening in May to begin your pursuit of the night sky, but for the most part, the winter chill is gone!
One of the things I love so much about stargazing is the constant passing parade of stars and constellations. As our planet orbits the sun, the Earth's nighttime side continually faces different directions out into space. Because of that, we see different constellations from season to season. And just like professional sports, the seasons overlap.
Not only can you see all of the spring constellations in the early evenings in May, but some winter and summer constellations are also available on the evening celestial stage.
This is your absolute last chance to see what’s left of the brilliant winter constellations in the Rochester western sky. Many of them are already lost below the western horizon, not to be seen again in the evening until late next autumn. There are stranglers, though. Just after evening twilight, though, you can still see Auriga the Charioteer, Canis Minor the Little Dog, and Gemini the Twins.
One of the brightest spring constellations, Leo the Lion, hangs high in the southwestern early evening sky. I consider it a two-part constellation. Leo's right side is a distinctive backward question mark of stars that outlines the big celestial cat's head and chest, with the star Regulus at the bottom of the question mark serving as the lion’s heart. A triangle of moderately bright stars on Leo's left side makes up his hind end and tail.
In the eastern evening heavens, one of the prime summer constellations is on the rise. Bootes is supposed to be a hunting farmer, but honestly, the constellation looks much more like a giant kite on its side, with the very bright star Arcturus at the kite's tail. Arcturus is also the brightest nighttime star available throughout the summer.
In the high northern sky in the early evening, look for the Big Dipper nearly overhead. It’s upside down. According to American folklore, the reason there’s generally more rainfall this time of year is that the Big Dipper is dumping on us! Astronomically, the Big Dipper isn’t considered an official constellation, but it makes up the rear end and tail of Ursa Major, the Big Bear. Without a doubt, the Big Dipper is the brightest part of the Big Bear.
Early evening planet watching is not the best this May. Mars is still visible in the low western sky, but it’s really faded in brightness, but still has a distinctive orange-red hue. It’s not a good telescope target because it’s so far away from Earth now. However, the very bright planet Venus is beginning its current stint as the evening “star.”
Early in the month, look for Venus in the very low northwestern sky toward the end of evening twilight. As May continues, Venus will pop out in the evening twilight higher and higher in the low northwestern heavens. Not far from Venus, the fainter planet Mercury will also be available in the evening twilight in the low northwestern sky.
The very best planet viewing this month will be in the early morning, just before twilight kicks in. You’ll easily see two bright, star-like objects side by side in the low southeast sky. Those “stars” are actually Jupiter and Saturn, the largest planets of our solar system.
The annual Eta Aquarids meteor shower peaks during the early morning hours of May 5, 6 and 7. Viewing should be great this year, because there won’t be any moonlight interfering after midnight. The Eta Aquarids are caused by debris left behind by Halley’s Comet.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Rochester Astronomy Club welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Their website is rochesterskies.org.