Posted by: Jerry Garrett | April 24, 2011

Sky-Watching May 2011: Eta Aquarid Meteors, Planetary Traffic Jam, Jupiter Kisses Venus

The Eta Aquarids meteor shower is Halley's Comet debris (OuterSpaceUniverse.org)

It’s been a long, cold, overcast, wet and dull winter for sky-watchers.

Finally, with the arrival of May, and much improved weather, there’s a reason to go outside at night again.

The red dot indicates center of meteor shower. (NASA)

Early May brings the first noteworthy meteor shower since January (with a apologies to the lackluster Lyrids on April 23). We’re talking about the Eta Aquarids (or Aquariids, for some) on May 4, 5 and 6. The peak is the final day.

Find these meteors near the constellation Aquarius, which will be low in the pre-dawn skies. They are bits of debris from the tail of Halley’s Comet, which the Earth passes through each May.

The farther south you are watching, the better your chances for seeing the Aquarids, because Aquarius is only about 20 degrees above the horizon.

Northern Hemisphere viewers can expect to see about 25 meteors an hour; well-positioned Southern Hemisphere sky-watchers might be rewarded with up to 70 per hour.

Aquarids can be spectacular. (NASA)

What makes the Eta Aquarids worth losing sleep over this year is the especially dark skies, owing to the null moon of May 3.

This is your best chance of watching shooting stars until the Perseids in August. For suggestions about the best viewing locations, check out a previous column of mine on the subject.

The other celestial event during May that will captivate sky-watchers is a traffic jam involving six planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus – which will cluster close together during the first three weeks of the month. The highlight comes May 11 when Jupiter gets close enough to Venus for a kiss. (Lonely Jupiter hasn’t been this close to elusive Venus since November 4 – and won’t get another chance like this until August 2014.)

Look for this planetary convergence in the pre-dawn eastern skies. Binoculars or small telescopes may be needed for best results (especially to help find Neptune and Uranus).

What about Saturn? Well, he’s doing his own thing, crossing the sky from southeast to southwest – in spectacular fashion: very bright, easy to see with the naked eye, and if you have a telescope the big planet’s rings will be prominent. On the night of May 22-23, four of Saturn’s biggest moons also line up.

(Read more on these subjects at http://www.astronomy.com)

Jerry Garrett

April 24, 2011


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