Dazzling shooting stars kick off a month of great sky-watching opportunities, as the moon points the way toward some of the brightest worlds in our solar system. Backyard telescope users will also get a bonus view of alien eclipses, as some of Jupiter’s moons cross behind the giant planet.
So dust off those binoculars, and mark your May calendar!
Regulus and Moon—May 3
Look for the waxing gibbous moon as it passes very close to the brightest member of the constellation Leo, the lion. You will find the brilliant blue-white star Regulus less than a degree away from the moon. Using your thumb to block the glare from the moon’s disk, see if you can spot the distinctive pattern of stars resembling a backward question mark that makes up the head of the cosmic cat.
While most of the world will simply see the two celestial objects making a close encounter, onlookers in Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand will be able to watch Regulus briefly disappear behind the moon, an event known as a lunar occultation. For specific times to look in cities around the world, check out this table by the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA).
Eta Aquarids Peak—May 5
Shooting stars will grace the skies all week long, as the Eta Aquarid meteor shower kicks into gear. The best display will happen on the night of May 5 and into the following morning. Astronomers expect up to 50 meteors an hour will be visible streaking through the northeast skies starting around 10 p.m. local time.
For the best views, head outside after the moon sets and look for the constellation Aquarius, the water bearer, in the east. Meteors will appear to radiate from this region of the sky. You’ll see the most shooting stars from dark skies away from city lights, but you can probably catch a few of the brighter meteors, including a couple fireballs, even from a suburban backyard.
This meteor shower’s claim to fame is that it is created by leftover pieces of Halley’s comet, which last swung past Earth in 1986. The famous comet won't be back until 2062, but every year we can still see sand grain-size particles shed by this icy visitor burn up high above our heads.
Jupiter Poses With Moon—May 7
The largest planet in the solar system will appear to cozy up to Earth’s lone natural satellite on May 7. The moon will appear less than two degrees from bright, creamy-colored Jupiter, making for a dramatic appearance as the two rise over the southeast horizon after darkness falls.
Jovian Eclipses—May 11
Grab your backyard telescope and watch Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede, move through the gas giant’s shadow. This Jovian eclipse ends at 10:55 p.m. ET, as Ganymede emerges into view. Then, at 11:45 p.m. ET, watch as the neighboring icy moon Europa disappears as it glides behind Jupiter.
Saturn Visits Moon—May 13
Late this evening, the waning gibbous moon will act as a convenient guidepost to help sky-watchers see the ringed wonder, Saturn. Night owls can catch this celestial pair rising above the southeastern sky just before local midnight. By dawn, the duo will be setting in the southwest and will get lost in the quickly brightening morning sky.
Even the smallest telescope trained on Saturn will reveal the famous set of rings that circle the gas giant, along with a few of its brightest moons, including Titan and Rhea. For naked-eye viewers, the best is yet to come: In about a month's time, Saturn will be its biggest and brightest in Earth’s skies for the year.
Mercury at Primetime—May 17
Mercury will be well placed for viewing, especially for observers in the Southern Hemisphere, as it reaches its greatest western elongation–or its greatest distance from the sun–as seen from Earth. You can see this faint, star-like planet appear just before local sunrise about 10 degrees, or roughly a fist’s width, above the southeast horizon.
Venus Meets Moon—May 22
Rising about two hours before the sun, super-bright Venus currently dominates the early morning eastern skies. Earth’s sister planet reached its peak brilliance late last month, but it still makes for an amazing sight for naked-eye viewers. On May 22, the waning crescent moon will park itself next to Venus, creating a stunning photo opportunity.
It’s also worth keeping tabs on Venus over the course of the entire month through a small telescope and watching its appearance change. At the beginning of May, the planet will appear as a miniature crescent under high magnification. By the month’s end, it will look like a half-lit orb.
Regulus and Moon—May 31
For a second time this month, the moon will be passing close by the blue-white star Regulus in Leo. And for some lucky sky-watchers in eastern Brazil and in central and southern Africa, the moon will occult the star. For specific viewing times in cities around the world, check out this IOTA table.