Solar system cluster a challenge for astrophotographers

James Edgar

The moon is approaching last quarter as May begins, and May 3, early birds will see Saturn four degrees north of that last-quarter moon in the south-eastern morning sky. Saturn and Jupiter are still close together after their conjunction last December, as evidenced by the moon’s close approach to Jupiter only a day later, May 4. May 12, Venus is less than a degree away from the moon, an occultation in the Southern Hemisphere. On the following day, Mercury is two degrees north of Luna. New moon was May 11, so it will just be a thin sliver for these last two sightings — a pair of tough ones so close to the western horizon at dusk.

May 15/16, Mars is 1.5 degrees south of the moon. May 26, a total lunar eclipse occurs (of course, the moon is full for this event to happen), but it will be somewhat of a dud for viewers in central and western Canada, as the eclipse begins nearing morning twilight and the moon sets before the eclipse is ended. By May 31, the moon has gone a full orbit and is back near Saturn, four degrees to the north.

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Mercury and Venus share the western evening sky for the first part of the month. The speedy planet is two degrees south of the Pleiades (M45) May 3, and two degrees north of the moon May 13. Following those two dates, Mercury reaches greatest elongation east of the sun, as we see it May 17. On the evening of May 28, Mercury is 0.4 degrees south of Venus.

Venus nicely splits the Pleiades and the Hyades as the thin sliver of the moon glides by May 12 and Mercury is right above the bright planet, awaiting its turn with the moon the following day.

Mars becomes visible in the western evening twilight for a couple of hours before setting. The moon shows up on the evening of May 5, but it’s just a thin sliver, waxing toward first quarter. Mercury and Venus are lower down that evening, so we have four solar system objects in a loose gathering — a challenge for aspiring astrophotographers.

Jupiter and Saturn rise around 3 a.m., quite close to the horizon, Saturn first, then the gas giant Jupiter. If you get up early, you have a couple of hours to see these two in the eastern morning twilight. The waning last-quarter moon shares the spotlight with Jupiter on the morning of May 4, only five degrees south.

Saturn rises before Jupiter so we get to see it for a little longer, as it disappears in the sun’s glare along the southern horizon around 4:30 a.m. The last-quarter moon is four degrees south May 3.

Uranus is too close to the sun at the beginning of the month, but reappears in the morning twilight by month-end.

Neptune appears briefly in the morning sky, rising around 4 a.m. and disappearing around 5 a.m.

The Eta Aquariid meteors peak on the night of May 5.

James Edgar has had an interest in the night sky all his life. He joined The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in 2000, was national president for two terms, is now the editor of Observer’s Handbook, and production manager of the bi-monthly RASC Journal. The IAU named asteroid 1995 XC5 “(22421) Jamesedgar” in his honour and he was recently awarded a Fellowship of the RASC.



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