May evenings are rich with bright stars: As many as 11 of the 16 brightest stars visible from the Coachella Valley can be viewed simultaneously in twilight—and this year, four of the five naked-eye planets will join the display.
On the night of Friday, May 23, there will bepossible outbursts of meteors as Earth passes through several trails of debris from a small comet. Outbursts could be short, with the peak likely between midnight and 1 a.m., Saturday, May 24. Although meteors from these outbursts could be seen anywhere in sky, if their paths are extended backward, they will radiate from a point to the lower left of the North Star, Polaris. You might like to camp out in a dark place on that Friday night, and keep watch for unusually slow meteors (only about 30 percent as fast as August’s Perseids) between 10:30 p.m. on Friday and 2 a.m. on Saturday. For more, visit the webpage of the International Meteor Organization.
May 2014 at dusk: The five brightest “stars,” in order of brightness, are Jupiter, Sirius (until it drops below the horizon), Mercury, Mars and Arcturus. (Mercury may not seem so bright, because it is seen in a brightly twilit part of the sky; its brightness fades below that of Mars on May 8, and that of Arcturus on May 21.)
At dusk for most of May, four of the five naked-eye planets are visible simultaneously! Jupiter (magnitude -2.0 to -1.9) descends in the west to west-northwest. Mars (-1.2 to -0.5) ascends in the southeast to south. Saturn, passing oppositionas Earth overtakes it on May 10, shines at +0.1 for most of May, while ascending from east-southeast into the southeast. Mercury, low in the west-northwest to the lower right of Jupiter at dusk, sets at or after mid-twilight beginning May 3, while shining at magnitude -1.5. The planet fades to -1.0 on May 8, to 0.0 on May 20, and to +1.2 on May 31.
As for stars, four of winter’s luminaries disappear below the western horizon during May. First to depart is Rigel, followed by Aldebaran, Sirius and Betelgeuse. Forming an arch above Jupiter, the stars Procyon, Pollux and Castor of Gemini, and Capella will linger into June. Far to the upper left of Jupiter, the star Regulus, heart of Leo, the Lion, is high in the south to well up in the west-southwest sky in May at dusk. Arcturus and Spica adorn the eastern half of sky in May’s evening twilight, and Vega rises in the northeast by mid-twilight after May’s first few days. Deneb and Antares are added later in month. Antares is at opposition and visible nearly all night on May 30.
The moon in the evening sky in May and early June passes nearAldebaran on May 1; Jupiter on May 3 and 4; Regulus on May 7; Mars on May 10 and 11; Spica on May 11 and 12; Saturn on May 13; Antares on May 15; Mercury on May 30; and Jupiter on May 31 and June 1.
May 2014 at dawn: The four brightest “stars” at dawn are Venus (magnitude -4), Arcturus, Vega and Saturn (mag. +0.1). Those who rise early and get outdoors to look at the sky before dawn are forward-looking people—literally! That’s because each morning, we are on the front side of the Earth with respect to our motion around the sun—facing directly out the front window of Spaceship Earth! This is a direct consequence of the Earth’s rotating on its axis in the same direction as our planet’s revolution around the sun: Counter-clockwise, as seen from the north side, or “above” our solar system.
Venus at dawn in May gleams brilliant in the east. Examine Venus through a telescope, and you’ll find it two-thirds full on May 1 to more than three-quarters full on the 31st. In the morning sky, Venus is ahead of us, and widening its distance from us daily, until it rounds the far side of the sun in October. Low in the west-southwest to southwest at dawn, we find Saturn at opposition to the sun on May 10 this year, and Antares, heart of the Scorpion, at opposition on the night of May 30-31. As we follow our orbit curving between the sun and these two bodies, they’ll drift toward the horizon. So will Arcturus in the west to west-northwest, and eventually, so will the Summer Triangle of Vega, Altair and Deneb, now overhead. Recently emerged Fomalhaut, mouth of the Southern Fish, is ascending in the southeast.
The moon in the mornings in May passes nearSaturn on May 14; Antares on May 15 and 16; and Venus on May 25.
Check the website of the Astronomical Society of the Desert for dates and locations of “star parties” where everyone is welcome to look through telescopes at the moon, planets and “deep sky objects.” Our final sky watch until October at the National Monument Visitor Center takes place Saturday, May 10, but our monthly sessions at Sawmill Trailhead, at 4,000 feet, continue all year.
Robert C. Victor was a staff astronomer at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs.
Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts, did graduate work in planetarium science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.