When I first thought about what we will see in the night sky in May, I straight away thought about the ever growing number of Starlink satellites being launched by SpaceX. I know for sure that I will see Starlink satellites in May and I’m pretty sure you will to, if you look. From now on we will all see more and more of these satellites, which at the moment look like long lines of lights moving across the sky.
Other than the human-made stuff, May is a great time to see the natural delights of the universe. Here in the Southern Hemisphere we’re watching Scorpius rising earlier and earlier as the month goes by, heralding the arrival of the centre of the galaxy to our skies. We’ve seen the constellation Pleiades disappearing from our skies and in June we’ll see it reappear as Matariki.
In the South, we see the Magellanic clouds hugging the horizon — from our latitude they never leave our southern sky as they are circumpolar. This time of the year, they are getting too close to the horizon to be in the optimal position for viewing the amazing Tarantula Nebula or the majestic 47 Tucanae Globular Cluster.
May is the month of galaxies for us and if you have a clear enough horizon to the north, and are free from light pollution you can see far into the Universe, if you know where to look.
There are now over 460 Starlink satellites active in Low Earth Orbit with plans to put thousands more.
Astronomers are not impressed!
Elon Musk doesn’t seem to be too worried about it though and his pressing ahead with launch after launch and news came out this week the constellation will be ready for use later in the year. This will bring the internet to the far flung reaches of our planet, which is a good thing as it enables the world to participate in the digital economy.
The cost is potentially the view of our night sky and by now, you’ve probably seen pictures of the lines of lights transiting the night sky — or maybe you’ve seen them yourself.
The first bunch I saw was about three months ago and it was surreal. First, one light slowly moved across the sky followed about a degree or two by another one, then another and another and so on. The next night, a much closer spaced line went past. My initial thought was “wow! this is amazing” but then it dawned on me that this is going to be a huge problem.
Now we know the final orbit of the satellites will be considerably higher and their magnitude will be around +8 which will means we will no longer see them with the naked eye. Unfortunately they will still be visible in telescopes and, more importantly, in the huge ground-based research telescopes.
The constellation of Scorpius sits on the horizon in the early evening at the start of May and steadily climbs higher each night. As it goes higher and higher in the night sky it will drag up the centre of the Galaxy underneath it. Here in the Southern Hemisphere the giant Scorpion is on its back so we have to wait for the stunning nebulae and clusters to come up after it, like the Lagoon Nebula below.
This nebula is visible in telescopes and binoculars and is one of the few star forming regions that are easily visible. It is not as bright as the Orion Nebula but still worth a look as even in binoculars you’ll be able to see the nebula and the some of the dark dust lanes that cross it. The Lagoon Nebula is about ten degrees below and to the left of Ptolemy’s Cluster (M7), which is the bright fuzzy patch underneath the Scorpion's sting. The nebula is 4300 light years away from us looking towards the centre of the Galaxy.
There’s a lot more beautiful nebulae like Lagoon below, like Triffid, Swan and the Eagle Nebula which is where the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) captured the stunning Pillars of Creation image.
The Realm of the Galaxies
If you can tear yourself away from the amazing sights around Scorpius then head to Leo in the Northern part of the sky, because this is where you will find many many galaxies that are easily seen, even with a modest telescope. The area doesn’t get very high from our location here in New Zealand, only about 35 degrees above the horizon but still well worth checking.
A few months ago we were impressed with the huge number of galaxies visible in the Fornax cluster, but this part of the sky takes it one step further. The most famous of the Leo galaxies is the Leo Triplet which is a small patch of the sky where you can see three galaxies in the eyepiece at the same time.
Not far from the Leo Triplet, about 15 degrees to the right is the absolutely stunning region in Virgo that is filled with galaxies and many of them are easily seen with binoculars or a telescope. The real jewel is Makarian’s Chain. This is a beautiful curved line of galaxies that extends for quite some distance. If you browse this curve of galaxies you’ll easily get diverted off it to see the other galaxies that come into the field of view. I took the below photo in 2009 and it shows something of the huge number of galaxies in the region.
One the objects I’m really keen to have a look this year is 3C 273. This is a Quasar in Virgo, so not far from all of the galaxies above. The amazing thing about this object is that it is 2.4 billion light years away. It’s not very bright at only 12.9 magnitude so I’m going to be using my 400mm reflector. Not only is the incredible distance impressive but the object itself is the result of a Super Massive Black Hole (SMBH) brighter than its host galaxy.
Around this SMBH is gas that is getting super heated and fusing letting off vast amounts of electromagnetic energy in x-rays and visible light. In my telescope it will look like a faint unremarkable star — hiding its true nature.
Jupiter, Saturn and Mars are also starting to become visible in the sky during May, they’ve been there for a while but in May you can see them at a more convenient time, though you’ll still have to stay up late. Jupiter and Saturn are quite close and Mars is an hour or so behind them.
I spent many nights last year looking at Saturn and Jupiter and they are both amazing. Saturn is one of the best objects in the night sky to see with its impressive rings. On Jupiter you can see one of the many eclipses that occur on the planet as it’s moons cast their shadows going across the planet.
So in May, get out there and check out the night sky!