The sky is dark, the stars are gleaming – time for some astronomy. But wait a minute. I don't recognise any of them. Where are Orion and the Plough? I'm lost.
If this means you, read on. We can tell you how to spot the stars, pick out the planets, get to grips with the galaxies... OK that's enough alliteration. But you get the idea.
Now then, young stargazers. It may be May but it can still get cold at night, so put your coat on. Don't worry, no-one can see you and pretend they aren't cold at all even though they are only wearing a T-shirt. You can wear a baseball cap as well if you really want to, but take it from us, they are pretty useless when you want to look through a telescope as the peak gets in the way of the eyepiece. And if you turn it round it falls off when you crouch down. So take a tip and go for the good old bobble hat.
You will need a star map, and you will need to know how it works. This may seem obvious, but there is a knack to understanding these things. Here's our map for this month:
All maps produced using Stellarium software.
Now don't write in and tell us that we have the points of the compass all wrong. This is a map of the sky, so you have to hold it over your head. When you do this, east and west will be the right way round.
It shows the whole sky, so the scale is quite small. Normally you turn to see different parts of it, so to see the view looking north, for example, hold the map upside down with north at the bottom.
The map shows the sky in mid May at about 11 pm, at the start of the month at 12 pm, or by the end of the month at 10 pm, though at this time of year the sky is too light to see much at that time. That's why we have had to make the time so late. All times are BST (British Summer Time, but they work more or less OK in other parts of the northern hemisphere).
|TIP If you aren't sure of the direction of north from your location, click here for a page on Getting Your Bearings.|
If it all looks just like a lot of dots, and drives you dotty, here's the way to get to grips with the sky. Start with something familiar and work from there. Most people recognise the seven stars that in the UK we call the Plough and in the US is called the Big Dipper but which is really Ursa Major, the Great Bear. If you can't find it, it's because you aren't looking high enough – it's almost above your head at this time of year, so it's shown at the centre of this map.
Look below the Plough, about halfway between there and the horizon, and you will see a group of stars called Leo. Now use the map below to find more patterns nearby, but don't expect to see those convenient lines helping you to see the patterns. If you do see them, consult an optician or give back those glasses your friends gave you on 1 April.
Lower down and to the left of Leo is Virgo with its bright star Spica. Another way to find Spica is to go up to the Plough and follow the curve of its handle round. First you come to a very bright star, Arcturus, and then you come to Spica, which is a lot lower in the sky. At the moment, Saturn is close by. On the map is marked a sort of Y shape, which is quite easy to pick out, which helps you to spot Virgo. Virgo is full of faint galaxies, and if you have good binoculars and a fairly dark sky and want a challenge, follow the link to find out just where they are. For a map with all the constellation names on it, click here.
An easier target is the constellation of Coma Berenices. This contains a very nice and large star cluster which you can see by eye in good skies, or using binoculars if your skies are lousy like most of us have to put up with. It's to the left of Leo, and above Virgo.
There's just one planet on view at the moment. But what a planet – it's Saturn.
|Saturn on 6 April, photographed with a 130 mm Sky-Watcher reflector|
Saturn is fairly low down in the evening sky, in Virgo. It is visible as soon as it gets dark, to the left of Spica. In recent years the rings have been more or less edge-on to us, but now they are opening out again and look great. And you don't need a super-colossal telescope to see them – any reasonably good small telescope should show them using a magnification of 50 or more. If it doesn't, it isn't (reasonably good, that is).
It begins the month well just before third quarter on the 2nd, so it will not be around unless you stay up after midnight. Then new Moon is on the 10th and first quarter is on the 18th. The month ends with full Moon on the 25th, so not much observing of faint objects will be possible then.
We have a whole section of the website devoted to the Moon and its features.
Sorry, no eclipses visible from the UK this month, though there is a solar eclipse on 10 May visible from the Pacific.
Text by Robin Scagell