Night sky this month – May
Highlights: Transit of Mercury. Mars closest to Earth.
Here is a view of the night sky this month as seen from mid-northern latitudes such as London or New York in mid May, 2016, at 10pm (22h UT).
The planets in May 2016
Mercury This is not a good month to see Mercury in a twilight sky, but you can experience the relatively rare event of a transit of Mercury, when the innermost planet passes in front of the Sun, on 9 May. This is an event that can only be viewed with great care and specialist equipment, but there will be broadcasts of it on the web. The transit is not visible from far eastern Asia or Australasia where it will be night. Read our guide to the transit here.
Venus is not visible this month as it is lies on the far side of the Sun and too close to it in the sky.
Mars is prominent in the sky now, and reaches opposition, being closest to the Earth on 29 May. It brightens from -1.5 magnitude at the start of the month to -2.5 at the end, and makes a spectacular sight close to Saturn near the head of Scorpius. It is obviously much brighter than the 1st magnitude star Antares in Scorpius, whose name means “rival of Mars”. A small telescope may now show you some dark markings and the bright polar caps, though the planet is very low in the sky for northern hemisphere observers. Find out more about Mars here including maps to show its position in the sky.
Jupiter is very well placed still in the evening sky, and will be seen shining brightly at magnitude -2.1 as soon as it gets dark. A small telescope will show the banding in its cloud tops, and the four brightest moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto can be spotted in binoculars.
Saturn rises before midnight by the month’s end, shining at magnitude 0 in Ophiuchus, and not far from Mars. The rings are very widely opened now and so may be well seen in a small telescope.
Transit of Mercury
Here is a useful video guide to the Transit of Mercury on 9 May.
Note: The sky will appear much the same from other cities at similar latitudes, such as New York, Paris and Berlin, at around 10pm local time. The sky appears the same at the start of the month an hour later and at the end of the month an hour earlier. We use Virtual Sky, a new, customizable, browser-based planetarium, courtesy of Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network. Click on the date or location to the top left of the chart to view the sky at a different time or from another longitude and latitude. If you want to check out the sky as seen from the southern hemisphere, click here.