Sky-watchers will get a chance in the coming weeks to catch a storied meteor shower, gaze at the largest planet shining its brightest, and witness the moon playing hop-scotch with neighboring worlds across the overnight sky.
So dust of those binoculars, and turn your gaze toward the heavens this month.
Venus and Bull's Eye—May 2
At dusk, look for the super-bright planet Venus to join the star Aldebaran—the red “eye” of Taurus, the bull—low in the northwestern sky. The two star-like objects will appear to be separated by six degrees, equal to about the width of your fist held at arm’s length. While both points of light will appear similar in brightness, you should easily notice their distinct colors: stark white for Venus and orange-red for Aldebaran.
Moon, Saturn, and Teapot—May 4
Early risers can watch the waning gibbous moon join the ringed planet in the eastern sky about an hour before local sunrise. As an added observing challenge, look for a fainter naked-eye star below the cosmic pair. Lambda Sagittari marks the tip of the lid of the Teapot, a pattern of stars known as an asterism. Binoculars may help pinpoint all these stars nestled within the constellation Sagittarius, the archer.
Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower—May 5
Get set for shooting stars all week long with the arrival of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, which will peak on the night of May 5 and into the following morning. Trace the paths of individual meteors, and you will notice that they appear to originate from the eastern part of the sky, where Aquarius, the water bearer, can be seen this time of year.
Most of the sky show will be visible from southerly latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere and across the entire Southern Hemisphere. Astronomers are expecting rates of up to 30 meteors an hour streaking through the northeast skies starting around 10 p.m. local time. The best views will be from the dark countryside, away from city light pollution. But you can probably catch a few of the brighter meteors, including a couple of fireballs, sweeping through the upper atmosphere even from a suburban backyard.
This meteor shower’s claim to fame is that the shooting stars are leftover pieces of Halley’s Comet, which last swung past Earth in 1986. The famous comet won't be back until 2062, but during the annual Eta Aquarids, we can still see the sand grain-size particles shed by this icy visitor burn up high above our heads.
Jupiter at Opposition—May 8
Look for Jupiter to be at its best and brightest for the entire year on this night. This is when the largest planet in the solar system officially reaches opposition—meaning it is on the opposite side of the sky from the sun. Because of this orbital configuration, the planet will appear to be the largest disc in the sky and will be visible from sundown to sunrise.
During opposition, Jupiter will also make its closest approach to Earth, coming within about 409 million miles. That’s five million miles closer than last year’s opposition, and so it should be stunningly bright, outshining even than the nearby brilliant star Spica.
Make sure to check out Jupiter’s retinue of large moons through binoculars, as well as the complex atmospheric details through a small telescope. For those with larger backyard telescopes, watch for the famed Great Red Spot to pop into view as the planet spins on its axis. This cyclonic storm is twice the size of Earth and has been raging for at least three centuries.
Moon Meets Venus—May 17
A wide-angle pairing of the thin crescent moon with brilliant Venus will make for a stunning sight within an hour after local sunset.
Moon Snuggles With Regulus—May 21
The first quarter moon will make a very eye-catching close encounter with the bright white star Regulus, the heart of Leo, the lion constellation.
Moon Joins Jupiter—May 26
As soon as darkness falls, look for the moon and Jupiter moving in tandem across the overnight sky from east to west. This solar system duo will also create a triangular formation with the bright star Spica, the lead member of the constellation Virgo.
Moon and Saturn Redux—May 31
For a second time this month, late night owls can witness the moon position itself next to Saturn, but this time on the other side of the ringed world than its earlier May pairing. Saturn will rise above the eastern horizon around 10 p.m. local time, about two hours earlier than it did at the beginning of the month. Also, the apparent diameter of the planet’s disc will grow a bit wider, making it a fine sight through backyard telescopes.