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What's Up for May 2017

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 is 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:

Whole sky for May 2017

All maps produced using Stellarium software.

Wrong way round?

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.

Making sense of the stars

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.

Sky for May 2017

Other constellations to look for

Lower down and to the left of Leo is Virgo with its bright star Spica and Mars in the middle of Virgo. 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.

This year, Jupiter is right in the middle of Virgo, and it rather dominates the constellation, as you can see in the photo below. 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.

Jupiter in the sky

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. Follow the link to find more objects you can look for.

This month’s bright planets

Jupiter, photographed last month. You can see the Great Red Spot below centre, and two of its moons, Callisto (upper left) and Io (right)

Jupiter is the most obvious planet, quite high up in the south, and the brightest thing around apart from the Moon. Through binoculars you will see up to four of its bright moons, on either side. A telescope will show you dark belts, and if you're lucky you may see the Great Red Spot (GRS), though it isn't particularly prominent through a small telescope.

How small a telescope do you need to see the GRS? It was seen through a 90 mm refractor recently, and probably a 75 mm telescope will show it. If you do spot the Spot through a small telescope, please let our Planetary Section Director, Alan Clitherow, know about it. Please give the date and time and instrument details. 

Mars is also in the evening sky, over in the north-west, though it isn't shown on our maps because it has set by the time of the maps. It follows the Sun down into the twilight sky, and if you want to spot it, look about an hour after sunset, below and to the left of Capella, which is shown on the top map, But it's very distant from the Earth right now, so don't expect to see anything other than a tiny blob through a telescope. It will be around again next year, and much closer, so look forward to that.

Saturn rises around midnight, in the south-east. It's to the left of a reddish star called Antares, and you can tell which is which because Antares twinkles, being a star, whereas Saturn doesn't as it's a planet. But if that's way past your bedtime it's best to wait for a couple of months, when it'll be in the evening sky.

Venus is in the morning sky, but you'll have to be up about 4.30 am to see it, shining brilliantly low in the east. Mercury is there as well, but it's too close to the Sun to be seen from the UK.

Don't forget the Moon

It begins the month as a fat crescent Moon.  First quarter – that’s a half Moon – is on the 3rd and then full Moon this month is on the 10th. Last quarter on the 19th, then the month ends with New Moon on the 25th. You might see the thin crescent Moon in the western twilight on the 27th about an hour after sunset. If you do, look to its right and you should spot Mars making just about its last appearance for this year.
We have a whole section of this site about the Moon and what to observe, so do take a look.

Get more helpful info

OK, you've read all this for nothing, now comes the plug. This page is brought to you by the Society for Popular Astronomy, which is a really great society to join. It's based in the UK but there are members in other countries as well. It doesn't cost much to join, and there is a special rate for Young Stargazers. At least take a look at what we have to offer. Text by Robin Scagell