What’s Up for May 2022

Lucie Green

The sky is dark, the stars are gleaming, I can’t go out and visit my mates – time for some astronomy. But wait a minute. I don’t recognise any of the stars. 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, junior astronomers. 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:

Map adapted using Cartes du Ciel 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 part of 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.

Detail of sky for May 19

Other constellations to look for

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

On the map Virgo is marked a sort of Y shape, which is quite easy to pick out. 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. Follow the link to find more objects you can look for.

This month’s bright planets

Unless you like getting up at 4 am you’ll have to give the planets a miss this month. All except Mercury are only visible in the early morning sky, and even then they are all too low down to be worth looking at through a telescope. Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn are all in a line low in the east before dawn. Your best bet is to wait until the autumn, when they will be in the evening sky.

Mercury is in the evening sky this, in the north-west just after sunset at the beginning of the month, for the first week.  It doesn’t make it onto our map because it will have set by the time the map shows. You’ll need a good clear sky and a low horizon to see it, and because the sky is still bright at this time you’ll have to search carefully. Just as you are about to give up you will probably spot it as a starlike point, and once you’ve seen it it becomes easier to find it again. It’s very close to the very thin crescent Moon on 2 May, but you’ll have to look about half an hour after sunset to be able to see it, and then you will need a good clear sky, not one of those hazy ones that look pretty in photos but are useless for astronomy.

Don’t forget the Moon

At the very start of the month the Moon is out of the sky altogether as new Moon was on 30 April. First quarter follows on the 9th, then the next full Moon is on the 16th, when there will be a total eclipse in the early morning. Then last quarter is on the 22nd, followed by new Moon again on the 30th

If it’s clear on the 1st take a look low in the north-west about 15 minutes after sunset and you might spot the very thin crescent Moon, just about 24 hours after new. Such a thin Moon is a great sight as it looks so delicate, but it’s worth looking for. It’ll be easier to see on the 2nd and 3rd, when it’ll still be a pretty sight. As mentioned above, on the 2nd it will be very close to Mercury.

We have a whole section of the website devoted to the Moon and its features. So make up for the lack of planets by getting to know the Moon.

Total lunar eclipse, Monday 16 May

Wow, an eclipse. Can’t wait to see it. But the sad fact is that this is an early morning total eclipse of the Moon, and being May, the sky starts to gets light at about 4 am so you are going to lose a lot of sleep seeing it! And because it happens on a Monday morning you will have to be up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for school so you may have a lot of explaining to do if you drift off during lessons.

The eclipse starts at 2:30 BST when the Moon, at that time quite low in the south, starts to enter the outer edges of the Earth’s shadow, called the penumbra. A few minutes after this it will start to look slightly darker than usual on its eastern side. The shadow will get more and more noticeable until at 3:27 it starts to enter the proper shadow, the umbra, and the eastern edge starts to get very dark. By now the Moon is getting quite low in the south-west. Then an hour later, at 4:28, it’s completely in the Earth’s shadow and the total part of the eclipse has begun.

But the trouble is that this is also about the time that the sky is starting to get really bright, as sunrise is not far away. The time of sunrise varies across the UK, and in the north the Sun rises about 4:50. You might have trouble finding the Moon at all, but remember what you learned about eclipses, that they happen when the Sun, Earth and Moon are in line. That means that that the Moon is exactly opposite the Sun in the sky, so look for the Moon in the direction exactly opposite where the Sun will be rising.

This is where a phone app comes in handy, it you can get it to work properly and show things where they are meant to be in the sky. If you are lucky it will show you exactly where the Moon is.

Mid eclipse is at 5:11 BST, but you are only likely to see this to the west of the country, as the Sun will have risen on the eastern side. Good luck with it, if you get up early!

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