What to See in the Night Sky in May

May's warmer nights offer the perfect opportunity to get out and spend some time staring into the heavens. (Photo: Pacheco [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr)

That giant sigh you just heard? The collective relief of the Northern Hemisphere that spring with all its beauty, sounds and smells is finally here. It's also the perfect time for stargazers to throw on little more than a sweatshirt and enjoy warmer evenings of looking up into the heavens.

While May isn't as heavy with celestial events as other months, there are a few highlights worth circling. Below are some to keep in mind as we move ever-closer to the summer season. Wishing you clear evenings!

Eta Aquarid meteor shower (May 5)

Eta Aquarid meteor shower
A view of the Eta Aquarids in California. (Photo: jason jenkins [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)

Peaking at dawn on May 5 through the early morning hours of May 6, the annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower is one of the more reliable shooting star events of the year. Observers near the equator through the Southern Hemisphere will have the best views, with the meteors appearing to radiate from the star Eta Aquarii in the constellation Aquarius. (It's located in the fourth quadrant of the Southern Hemisphere and can be seen at latitudes between +65 degrees and -90 degrees, according to Constellation Guide.) An approaching full moon on the 7th, however, will likely outshine all but the brightest Aquarids. With this in mind, it might be best to glimpse of this shower in the predawn hours of May 1, 2, and 3rd.

One neat thing about the Aquarid shower is that it's made up of icy debris left over from visits by Halley's Comet. Because the current orbit of Halley doesn't close pass enough by Earth to produce meteor showers, the Aquarids are remnants leftover from a closer orbit from hundreds of years ago.

The Flower Supermoon (May 7)

The full 'Flower Moon' will arrive on May 10th.
The full Flower Moon will peak on the morning of May 7. (Photo: Jamie Wang [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr)

Like all the other awesome monthly full moon nicknames we've come to know recently (Frost Moon, Wolf Moon, Worm Moon), April's Flower Moon is reflective of what's happening on the ground in the Northern Hemisphere. This month's full moon was also known by Native Americans as the Mother's Moon, the Corn Planting Moon and the Milk Moon.

The last of 2020's series of four supermoons, the full Flower moon will reach its peak on the morning of May 7 at 6:45 a.m. ET.

After 25 million years, comet SWAN returns (May 12)

Comet C/2014 Q2 LOVEJOY
This is an image of another comet, C/2014 Q2 (LOVEJOY), which was discovered by Terry Lovejoy in August 2014 and was visible to the naked eye in January and February 2015. (Photo: Serrgey75/Shutterstock)

Back in March, astronomers and enthusiasts alike were making careful observations and giddy predictions over a comet named ATLAS (after the observatory that discovered it) and its potential to become one of the brightest and most spectacular in decades. And then, as ATLAS moved closer to the inner solar system, it broke up –– effectively dashing hopes for it to transform into a so-called "great comet."

Surprisingly, just as fast as ATLAS started to crumble, another comet was discovered on April 11 by amateur astronomer Michael Mattiazzo. The Australian was studying images captured by the SWAN camera (Solar Wind Anisotropies instrument) on NASA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) when he spotted the comet. SWAN is expected to pass by Earth on May 12 at a safe distance of 55 million miles and make its closest approach to the sun (40 million miles) on May 27. It's possible that SWAN could brighten to magnitude 3.5, which would be enough to make it a naked eye object, or it could disintegrate like ATLAS.

Comet SWAN, which last visited our neighborhood some 25 million years ago, will be best seen from the Southern Hemisphere. However, should it brighten to a naked eye object, it may become visible to those in northern latitudes. According to Thrillist, should SWAN brighten, look for it low in the west-northwest sky after sunset and low in the east-northeast sky before sunrise.

The α–Scorpiid meteor shower peaks (May 14-15)

A meteorite streaks over the Grand Canyon, with the Milky Way in the sky. (Photo: Harun Mehmedinović/SKYGLOW)

One of the more difficult annual meteor showers to observe, the α–Scorpiid's radiate from low on the horizon in the southeast. The shower is believed cause by 2004 BZ74, a large asteroid that sheds debris as its orbit carries it from outside Jupiter to around the sun.

While this shower is only associated with as many as three to five shooting stars each hour, some have been reported to exhibit blazing trails lasting over a minute. The prize behind viewing this celestial event isn't so much quantity, but quality of what you may see light up the night sky.

Enjoy dark skies with the new moon (May 22)

Milky Way background, Chiang mai Thailand, a new moon offers the perfect dark sky conditions to stargaze.
Far from city lights, a new moon offers the perfect dark sky conditions to stargaze. (Photo: jaboo2foto/Shutterstock)

The new moon will arrive on May 22, bringing with it dark skies perfect for picking out galaxy clusters like Omega Centarui (thought to contain some 10 million stars) or the Virgo Cluster (estimated to contain as many as 2,000 galaxies).

SpaceX launches its first manned mission (May 27)

An artist's illustration of the SpaceX Crew Dragon docking with the International Space Station. (Photo: SpaceX)

Later in the month, SpaceX will finally achieve its goal of sending astronauts to the International Space Station. The mission, named Demo-2, will see NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken soar over 240 miles above the Earth to the ISS aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. The Falcon 9 rocket that will take them into low Earth orbit is expected to launch at 4:32 p.m. EDT on May 27 from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The historic event will mark the first crew launch from American soil since NASA retired its shuttle program in 2011.

NASA will not be inviting spectators to view the launch (with county officials in Florida discouraging tourists from doing the same) in respect of social distancing requirements. Nonetheless, you can watch this incredible moment unfold online through various live events on YouTube.

A bashful Milky Way (All month)

The Milky Way rises over Fiftymile Mountain inside the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Escalante, Utah. (Photo: Ryan Hallock [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

For nearly all of May, those in the Northern Hemisphere seeking out the luminous star-dusted band of the Milky Way after sunset won't find it. The galactic disk all month is located on the plane of the horizon, effectively hiding it from sight. It's not until midnight, as the night sky rotates from east to west, that this celestial wonder will slowly start to rise. By August, the best month to view the Milky Way, this galactic plane will be overhead and stretching full across the sky.