May is blessed with a variety of astronomical events. From a significant meteor shower to the year’s only total lunar eclipse and from rare planetary conjunction to a supermoon, there are many reasons to look up at the night sky. So here are the top astronomical events in May 2021.
May 6: η-Aquarid meteor shower
Active between April 19 and May 28, the η-Aquarid meteor shower will reach its peak activity on May 6. It is one of the significant meteor showers of the year.
Annual meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through a stream of the debris left behind in the wake of comets and asteroids. Over time, the pieces of grit-like debris in these streams distribute themselves along the length of the parent object’s orbit around the solar system. Shooting stars are spotted whenever one of these pieces of debris collides with the Earth’s atmosphere, typically burning up at an altitude of around 70 to 100 km.
This shower can be traced back to Halley’s Comet. This year, the η-Aquarids do offer the opportunity to see around 40 meteors per hour. The shower will peak close to the New Moon, and hence moonlight will present minimal interference.
There is a pivotal point in the sky associated with each meteor shower, the radiant. All the meteors appear to originate from the radiant. The best show of the meteor showers occurs when the radiant is well up in the night sky. You can use these space apps to locate the radiant easily. The radiant of this shower lies in the constellation of Aquarius (hence the name). You don’t have to stare at the radiant point. Look 30 to 40 degrees away from it to see the shooting stars. The best time to watch the meteor shower will be shortly before dawn when the radiant is well up in the sky.
Things To Keep In Mind
Before you step out to enjoy the cosmic fireworks, remember the following
- There is no need for any telescope or binoculars to watch meteor showers. Just find an open space in the dark.
- Make sure there is no artificial light pollution near your viewing spot.
- Give your eyes enough time to adapt to the darkness. It usually takes 20-30 minutes.
- If possible, relax on a lawn chair to enjoy the show of the heavens above.
- Good things always come to those who wait. So be patient while watching the shower. It takes time to spot them!
Lastly, remember the words of a wise man: “Meteor showers are like fishing. You go. You enjoy the night air and maybe the company of friends. Sometimes you catch something.”
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May 12: New Moon at Apogee
The Moon will pass close to the Sun and remain hidden in its glare for a couple of days. It’s a chance to observe faint galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. On the same day, the Moon will be at its apogee, the farthest point in its orbit around the Earth.
May 13: Moon, Venus, and Mercury
The three celestial bodies will be placed close to each other in Taurus. The one-day-old Moon will pass 0°42′ to the south of Venus and 2°08′ to the south of Mercury. Since Venus and the Moon will be too close to the setting Sun, it will be difficult to observe them. Mercury, on the other hand, will be higher in altitude.
May 16: Moon and Mars
After a close date with Venus and Mercury, the five-day-old Moon will pass 1°28′ to the north of Mars. Mars is currently an early evening object and becomes visible as soon as the dusk sky fades. On May 16, the Red Planet will be close to the Moon, but the two objects won’t fit together in the view of a telescope.
May 17: Mercury at the highest altitude in the evening sky
On May 17, the tiniest planet of the solar system will reach its highest altitude in the evening sky in its April-June evening apparition. If you live close to the latitude of the Indian subcontinent, Mercury will be placed at an altitude of around 20° above the horizon at sunset on May 17. The planet will be shining at a magnitude of 0.3. The mid of May will be the best time to see the planet.
May 23: Saturn enters retrograde motion
Saturn will halt its usual eastward movement through constellations and will start moving westwards instead. As in-the-sky explains: The retrograde motion is caused by the Earth’s own motion around the Sun. As the Earth circles the Sun, our perspective changes, and this causes the apparent positions of objects to move from side to side in the sky with a one-year period. This nodding motion is superimposed on the planet’s long-term eastward motion through the constellations. You can watch this video to understand the concept visually.
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May 26: Supermoon and Total Lunar Eclipse
The third supermoon of 2021, also known as the Super Flower Moon, will be eclipsed by the Earth, as seen from some parts of the world. The eclipse will be visible any location where the Moon is above the horizon at the time, including from Oceania, the Americas, and Eastern and Southeast Asia. The map of the eclipse is given below:
The lunar eclipse of May 26 will last for a little more than three hours. It’s the first eclipse of the year. It will be followed by an annular solar eclipse on June 10, a partial lunar eclipse on November 18-19, and a total solar eclipse on December 4.
May 29: Conjunction of Venus and Mercury
Rare planetary conjunction will occur on May 29 as Venus and Mercury pass within 0°25′ of each other. Look for the two planets in the west as the dusk sky fades. Mercury will have dipped a little since it reached its highest altitude a couple of weeks ago. The duo will be close enough to fit in the view of a telescope. The brighter of the two planets will be Venus, shining at a magnitude of -3.9 in Taurus. Mercury would be faint, at mag +2.3.
May 2021 – Planet Round-up
Mercury is emerging from behind the Sun and will be visible as an evening object in the west. As the month progresses, its altitude in the dusk sky will increase, reaching its maximum value in the middle of the month. Don’t miss the conjunction of Venus and Mercury on May 29.
Venus recently passed behind the Sun and is still hidden in its glare. The planet won’t be visible in the first half of the month. Look for it in the west at dusk at the end of May.
Mars is currently an early evening object, now receding into evening twilight. The Red Planet becomes accessible as the dusk sky fades, above the western horizon. Mars is going further away from the Earth with each passing day. It will reach its apogee in October.
Jupiter is now emerging from behind the Sun as seen from the Earth. The gas giant rises about a couple of hours after midnight in the eastern sky. In the coming months, as the distance between the Earth and Jupiter decreases, the planet’s brightness will increase and it will gradually become an evening object.
Just like Jupiter, Saturn is emerging from behind the Sun as seen from the Earth. Both these large planets were at solar conjunction in the last week of January 2021. They remained hidden in the Sun’s glare for the first quarter of the year and are now visible in the morning twilight. The space apps will help you quickly spot the two planets according to your location.
Uranus will be at solar conjunction on May 1 as its orbit takes it to the opposite side of the solar system with respect to the Earth. The planet will remain hidden in the Sun’s glare for several weeks to come.
Neptune recently passed behind the Sun and is visible in the dawn sky (in a telescope), rising about three hours before the Sun.