A Big Moon and Big Changes!
The moon is putting on a big show in May. Full moon this month, the night of May 25-26th, is not only a supermoon, but it’s the best supermoon of 2021. Without a doubt It will be a little brighter and a little larger than average. That’s because supermoons are physically closer to the Earth than most full moons. The moon’s 27.3-day orbit around the Earth is slightly elliptical, causing its distance from Earth to vary. The minimum distance from Earth in the moon’s orbit is called perigee, and the farthest point is called apogee. It just so happens that the full moon this month is very close to perigee, only 222,117 miles away. This makes it the closest full moon this year,… a super supermoon! The May full moon is best known as the Flower Moon, originating from Native American lore. That name certainly makes sense this time of year. Don’t expect to see petals dropping from the moon though!
Not only do we have an enhanced supermoon this month, but in some places it will be a disappearing supermoon! There will be a lunar eclipse, or what many call a blood moon, in the early morning hours of May 26th. The bad news is that not everybody will see it. It’ll only be visible in western North America, the Pacific Ocean, and eastern portions of Asia and Australia. If you happen to miss this one, no worries. Another lunar eclipse is coming in November.
Even without supermoons and lunar eclipses, peering into the night sky is so special. You do have to stay up later in May to begin your pursuit of the night sky, but on the positive side most of the winter chill is gone!! One of the things I love so much about stargazing is the constant passing parade of stars and constellations. The show is constantly changing. 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 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. It looks as if Leo the Lion is chasing the winter constellations out of the sky!
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. Not far from Bootes is the large but faint constellation Virgo the Virgin. Spica is Virgo’s brightest star, and honestly, it’s the only star easily visible with the naked eye. Within the constellation Virgo there’s a group of distant galaxies, some of which are over 60 million light-years away! They’re called appropriately, the Virgo Cluster. With a moderate to large telescope you should be able to spot some of these galaxies. Admittedly, they won’t look like much more than little fuzzy patches, but it’s really cool knowing that you’re seeing other galaxies, some of them way, way larger than our home Milky-Way galaxy! You can use this Sky Guide App to locate the Virgo Cluster.
In the high northern sky in the early evening, look for the Big Dipper nearly overhead. It’s upside down. According to old 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 evenings planet watching is not the best this May. Mars is still visible in the low western sky after twilight in the constellation Gemini 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 the planet named after the Roman goddess of love in the very low northwestern sky toward the end of evening twilight. You’ll need to have an unobstructed view of the horizon. 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. Hope for clear skies on May 13th because a very thin new crescent moon will be parked just to the left of Mercury, making for a great start to your evening stargazing adventures. On May 28th, Venus and Mercury will be very close to each other in a tight celestial hug, just above the horizon. Don’t miss it!
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. With even a small telescope, you can see up to four of Jupiter’s moons. They look like tiny stars, constantly changing their positions around the planet. You may also see some of the cloud bands on Jupiter and Saturn’s fantastic ring system. On the mornings of May 2nd and 3rd, as well as May 30th and 31st, the last quarter moon will be close by Jupiter and Saturn.
The annual Eta Aquarids meteor shower peaks during the early morning hours of May 5th, 6th, and 7th. Lie back in a reclining lawn chair and roll your eyes around the entire sky. In the dark countryside you may see 20 or more meteors an hour. Viewing should be great this year because there won’t be any moonlight interfering after midnight. The Eta Aquarids is one of two meteor showers created by debris left behind by Halley’s Comet.
Enjoy stargazing this month with much less chill!
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 email@example.com