Late and Lovely Nights Complete with a Blood Moon!
May stargazing offers quite a variety across the celestial stage. At center stage are the spring constellations while in the west, at least in the early evening, the last of winter constellations are taking their final bow. In the east, the first of the summer shiners are rising. Nights are definitely warmer and more comfortable, but the tradeoff is that the nights are shorter, and stargazing pursuits really can’t begin until after 10 pm in most places. Get a nap in and be ready for celestial fun this month.
The full this month of May is extra fun because we have a prime-time total lunar eclipse or “blood moon” visible over North and South America the night of May 15-16th. This will be the first total lunar eclipse to start in the early evening over the Americas since January 2019. The eclipse begins around 9:29 pm and ends at 12:55 am central daylight time. Totality is from 10:29 to 11:54. Instead of the usual constellation of the month article I’m writing a special lunar eclipse May 15-16th article.
Lunar eclipses occur when the moon, orbiting the Earth, passes through the Earth’s shadow opposite the sun, known as the umbra. An eclipse can only happen during a full moon when our planet lies in a line between the sun and moon. An eclipse doesn’t occur every full moon because the moon’s orbit is tilted five degrees to the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Most of the time, the full moon misses the Earth’s shadow. It passes either above or below the umbra. But on May 15th, the moon will charge right through the umbra, and we’re in for a bloody treat! During eclipse totality, the moon could take on a bright orange or possibly bloody red hue. No one can predict for sure, but that’s part of the fun of a total lunar eclipse. The color depends on local atmospheric conditions. The ruddy appearance of the Earth’s umbra shadow is due to strained sunshine that makes it through Earth’s atmosphere and onto the moon.
Total lunar eclipses are completely safe to view, even with telescopes. Watch for stars disappearing along the eastern edge of the moon and stars popping out on the western edge. This is due to the moon’s slow eastward migration among the backdrop of stars as our lunar companion orbits the Earth. I have more on the May 15-16th lunar eclipse in my constellation of the month feature this month (instead of a constellation).
The best stargazing of May will be the first ten nights and the last ten nights of the month. That’s when you won’t have to put up with much moonlight whitewashing the heavens. After evening twilight, you can still see what’s left of the brilliant winter constellations in the western sky. They’re just about lost below the western horizon, not to be seen again in their entirety in the evenings until late next autumn. The legendary constellation Orion the Hunter is already partially set at nightfall in the west as the month begins. By the end of May, it’s completely below the horizon at nightfall.
High in the southwest sky, you can easily spot the bright constellation Leo the Lion. The lower right side of Leo resembles a distinctive backward question mark that outlines the chest and head of the celestial lion. Leo’s brightest star, Regulus, marks the period at the bottom of the question mark and the heart of the super-sized feline.
Face north and look high in the sky, it’ll appear as if the Big Dipper is dumping out on you. The Big Dipper is upside down in the evening this time of year, and according to old American folklore, it’s why we have so much rain in the spring. The Big Dipper is not a constellation but is the outline of the rear end and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear. Without a doubt, the Big Dipper is the brightest part of the great beast.
With your mind’s eye, extend the curve of the handle of the Big Dipper beyond the end of the handle, and you’ll run right into the super bright orange-reddish star Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Bootes the Hunting Farmer. Bootes dominates the eastern half of the early evening May sky. Bootes doesn’t look much like a farmer but more like a big sideways kite with the bright star Arcturus at the tail of the kite. In the lower southeastern sky, not far from Arcturus and Bootes, is the large but faint constellation Virgo the Virgin. Spica is Virgo’s brightest star and honestly, the only star in Virgo that jumps out at you.
The early evening sky continues to be devoid of bright planets with one exception. Mercury will be visible for about first 10 days of May in very low northwestern sky for about an hour after evening twilight before it sets. On May 2nd look for Mercury just about and to the upper right of the new crescent moon.
Early morning though is prime time for plant watching in May, all in the low southeast skies just before and during early twilight. Four planets are on parade; Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. Venus is by far the brightest planet, and on May 1st, Venus and Jupiter will appear to almost “touch” each other. Of course, these two planets are nowhere near each other physically. They’re just in the same line of sight from our view on Earth. Mars and Jupiter will get closer and closer to each other in late April, reaching their minimum separation on May 28-29th when they’ll only be about a degree apart. From May 23rd through May 27th, the waning crescent moon will pass among the morning planets. The conjunction between Venus and the thin crescent moon will be especially spectacular on May 27th! Keep up with the changing array of planets and the moon with your Sky Guide App.
If you’re in the mood for meteors, May brings the Eta Aquarids meteor shower that will peak in the pre-morning twilight hours of May 5th. If you watch from the dark countryside you may see more than 30 meteors or “shooting stars” an hour between midnight and dawn. The Eta Aquarids come to us compliments of Halley’s Comet as the Earth cuts through dust and pebbles left behind in the wake of the famous comet.
There’s much to see in May at both ends of the night!
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. Available at bookstores and online at www.adventurepublications.net.
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something you’re seeing in the night sky drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org