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Cosmic sightings: NASA skywatching guide for May 2024

A series of awe-inspiring astronomical events is set to unfold this month, including intimate planetary alignments and the dazzling Eta Aquariids meteor shower. Guided by NASA’s latest skywatching tips, you will know exactly what to look for in the spring sky of May 2024.

Planetary alignment in early May

The month begins with an enchanting alignment on May 3rd, where the crescent Moon, Saturn, and Mars will create a striking scene in the early morning hours. “On May 3rd, in the hour or so before dawn, you’ll find the crescent Moon rising with Saturn in morning twilight,” noted NASA

This celestial gathering offers a splendid view of the Moon and Saturn closely trailed by the vibrant Red Planet, Mars, which rises approximately 45 minutes after Saturn. This alignment forms a captivating lineup in the eastern sky that is perfect for early risers.

The following morning, the celestial dance continues as the Moon, showing an even slimmer crescent, positions itself neatly between Saturn and Mars. This event marks the continuation of the planets’ journey after their close conjunction in early April.

For those with an unobstructed view of the horizon, the elusive Mercury also makes an appearance, rising in the hour just before sunrise. Although it competes with the dawn’s twilight, its brightness offers a rewarding challenge, especially for observers in the Southern Hemisphere where it ascends higher in the sky.

Lunar occultation 

A special highlight for skywatchers on the U.S. East Coast, particularly from south of Delaware through Florida, occurs on May 23rd. The full Moon will be seen passing directly in front of Antares, a bright red star in the constellation Scorpius, an event known as an occultation. 

“Over a couple of hours as the pair rise into the night sky, the Moon will move slightly in its orbit, first obscuring and then revealing Antares,” said NASA.

The planetary alignment will conclude on May 31st, with Saturn and the crescent Moon rising together in the early morning hours, offering a grand view in the southeastern sky. They will appear close enough to be seen together through binoculars, in a beautiful end to May’s skywatching events.

Meteor showers from Halley’s Comet

May 2024 skywatching also features one of the two annual meteor showers originating from Halley’s Comet. The Eta Aquariid meteor shower, peaking overnight on May 5th into the morning of the 6th, results from Earth crossing through the orbital path of Halley’s Comet, encountering streams of meteoric debris.

The Eta Aquarids are known for their speed, traveling into Earth’s atmosphere at about 66 kilometers per second. They are also known for producing a high percentage of persistent trains – luminous trails that last for several seconds after the meteor itself has disappeared.

“The Eta Aquariid meteors are seen each year in May, whereas the Orionid meteors streak through our skies in October,” noted NASA. The shower’s radiant point is in the constellation Aquarius, which rises after midnight. 

Skywatching in May: The Eta Aquarids

The best viewing times are between midnight and dawn. While the meteor shower is visible worldwide, it will be more pronounced in the Southern Hemisphere – where the Aquarius constellation is more prominently positioned in the sky.

Here, with optimal dark sky conditions, it is possible to view up to 50 meteors per hour. In the Northern Hemisphere, about 10 to 20 meteors will be visible per hour.

“It’s still an above average shower, though, especially with the peak this year being near a new moon, making for a darker sky,” noted NASA. “And with the warmer temperatures that come with springtime north of the equator, it can be a worthy shower to go out and enjoy.”

“As always, to see the most meteors, find yourself a safe, dark spot away from bright lights and give your eyes a few minutes to adapt to the dark.”

“Lie down with your feet pointed more or less toward the east, and look straight overhead. Bring a warm drink and a friend or two, and turn an early morning into a ‘meteor morning,’ as you search the skies for the eta Aquariid meteors.”


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