Night sky in May – northern hemisphere
Highlights: Mercury, Venus and Jupiter close up.
Here is a view of the night sky this month as seen from mid-northern latitudes such as London (51° 30′) in mid May, 2013, at 10pm (22h UT).
The planets this month
Mercury is an elusive world but this closest planet to the Sun returns to the evening twilight sky in the last week or so of the month at magnitude -1.1. It sneaks past Venus on 22 May to make a pretty grouping with that planet and Venus for the remainder of May, low in the north-west.
Venus returns to the evening sky in late May too, shining at a brilliant -3.9 low in the north-west. Use it to locate Mercury just two degrees away on the 22nd, then watch its close encounter with Jupiter on the 28th when the planets are just a degree apart.
Mars is not observable this month, having passed on the far side of the Sun in April. It will return to visbility in the morning sky later this year. Find out more about Mars here.
Jupiter still shines at a conspicuous -2 magnitude, but it begins to slip away into the evening twilight as the month progresses after an impressive showing throughout the winter. Its little dance with Venus and Mercury will be interesting to view with binoculars in the last days of May, particularly the conjunction with Venus mentioned above on the 28th.
Saturn now dominates the night, having reached opposition in April when it lay on the opposite side of the sky to the Sun. Though its southerly location in the Zodiac between Libra and Virgo means it never gets very high in the sky for northern hemisphere observers, it should still offer a pleasing sight even through a small telescope. The spectacular ring system is now open wide enough that the famous gap in them called the Cassini Division should not be too difficult to discern.
Having put on a reasonable showing for southern hemisphere observers in February/March and then northern hemisphere observers in March/April, Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) has faded considerably but may still be glimpsed with binoculars or small telescopes as it moves through Cassiopeia and Cepheus into Ursa Minor. In the last week of May it passes very close to Polaris, the Pole Star. Its very slow apparent motion around the celestial pole will make this a relatively easy opportunity to photograph it.
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.