May is shaping up to be one of the best months of 2015 for sky gazers and amateur astronomers across the world with planet watching and meteor showers just some of the highlights of what will be available to see in the night sky.
Leading the pack of planet appearances will be Saturn, which reaches opposition on May 22. That evening, it will rise in the east and set in the west and shine among the stars of Scorpius at a magnitude 0.0. In a telescope, the view of Saturn will be quite impressive offering a spectacular view of both the planet and its system of rings. Saturn will be highest in the sky between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., which enhances its view because we see it through less of Earth's atmosphere because of its higher altitude.
Not to be outdone by the great Saturn, Mercury, the solar system's smallest planet, will put on a show as well. Beginning on May 1 or 2, you should be able to catch a glimpse of this planet in the evenings to the left of the setting sun, about 45 to 60 minutes afterward. Mercury reaches its greatest elongation on May 6. That night it will be 21 degrees from the sun at 11 degrees altitude above the western horizon. Because Mercury is so close to the sun, it's orbit swings back toward the sun quickly meaning that by May 11 it will have faded in the sky and a week after that will be completely invisible from Earth.
Venus has already been putting on a show this month in the western sky and it doesn't plan to slow down in April. In fact, it will be even brighter that it was this month, going to -4.4 by mid-May. This brightness means it will dominate the sky in the evenings until Venus sets around 11 p.m. The crescent moon will appear below the planet on May 21 and 22 making it even easier to spot in the sky.
Jupiter will continue to shine in the night sky during the month of May as well, now high up in the west at magnitude -2.1. It continues to be a wonderful object to observe through a telescope with its bands of clouds and bright moons. Jupiter will be the fourth brightest object in the sky after the sun, moon and Venus.
The Eta Aquariad meteor shower will also peak around May 6, as debris rains down on Earth's atmosphere from the Comet Halley. To catch a glimpse of this shower, you will need to be up early, or around 4 a.m., where you will be able to see anywhere from 10 to 50 meteors per hour from the east-southeast sky. This year, expect the number of meteors to be toward the lower end of the range, or about 10 to 15 per hour.
With all the planets and the meteor shower this month, May is shaping up to be one of the best times this year to catch a glimpse of what is going on in the heavens above.