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M51 Galaxy Photo By Tom Arnold
M51 Galaxy Photo By Tom Arnold

The Real Sky: Skywatching Notes for May 2020


The Real Sky: Skywatching Notes for May 2020

Have a telescope at home, some binoculars, or just like peering up at the sky with the naked eye? Check out these skywatching tips for May 2020 from Kirkpatrick Planetarium Director Tom Arnold!

The Planets for May 2020

Mercury – In the early part of the month, Mercury will be too close to the sun to be visible. However around mid-month it will begin to emerge from the suns glow appearing low in the western sky at sunset. Moving rapidly eastward, on May 21-22, Mercury will have risen quickly in the sky to join Venus. Venus will be heading toward the sun and Mercury will moving away from it. On May 23-24, the Moon will join the two planets in the western sky. This creates what astronomers call a conjunction of the three bodies.

Venus – During the first of the month, Venus will be high in the western sky at sunset. Venus will be moving rapidly between the Earth and the sun as the two planets orbits approach. This motion causes Venus to change its phase relative to Earth, becoming thinner and thinner as the month progresses. On May 13, Venus will begin its motion toward the sun now that its orbit has passed that of Earth. On May 21-22, Venus will join Mercury in the evening twilight. By month’s end, the planet will be lost in the sun’s glow.

Mars – This month Mars will be in Capricorn shinning at a bright 0 magnitude on May 31. On the May 14-15, the Moon will pass close to the planet in the morning sky.

Jupiter – Jupiter remains in Sagittarius this month. By mid-month both Jupiter and Saturn will be relatively close in the late night sky, about 5 degrees apart (or a hand’s width at arm’s length). The waning Moon passes close to both Jupiter and Saturn on May 12. This will be a beautiful sight in binoculars.

Saturn – This month the planet remains in Capricorn, not far from Jupiter.  

Uranus – For most of the month, Uranus is too close to the sun in the morning sky to be seen. However it will reappear later in the month before sunrise.

Neptune – Neptune is in the early morning sky in Aquarius.

Notable Skywatching Dates for May

Tuesday, May 5: Eta Aquarid Meteors – Created by the orbit of the Earth passing through the debris of Halley’s comet, the Eta Aquarids are better suited for observing in the southern hemisphere due to the orientation of the Earth. However in Oklahoma an observer may be able to see around 10 per hour if you’re located under a dark sky. Since this is such a large debris field, the peak of the shower is spread over several nights beginning on May 4 and ending on May 6. The nearly full Moon will make observing meteors difficult this year.

Originating in the constellation of Aquarius, the radiant will be near the star Eta Aquari in the southeast in the early morning sky just before dawn.

Observing Instructions

  • Find a dark location away from the city & light pollution
  • Wait 15-20 minutes for your eyes to adapt to darkness
  • Lay on a blanket on the ground, facing the east
  • Give your eyes about 20 minutes to adjust to darkness


  • Thursday, May 7: Full Moon
  • Tuesday, May 12: Jupiter will be 2 degrees north of the Moon and Saturn will be 3 degrees of the Moon
  • Thursday, May 14: Last Quarter Moon
  • Friday, May 15: Mars will be 3 degrees north of the Moon
  • Friday, May 22: Mercury is 0.9 degrees south of Venus, New Moon
  • Saturday, May 30: First Quarter Moon


Object of the Month: M51

23 million light years away, this galaxy is both amazing to see and filled with interesting features.

The first thing you’ll notice is the spiral structure of the main part of the galaxy. In fact this was one of the very first galaxies specifically identified as a grand design spiral and remains one of the best examples of that galaxy type.

Beginning with the bright central core of the galaxy, which contains a black hole like our own Milkyway galaxy, we move outward into the spiral arms. Here the stars appear dense and compacted into whitish colored masses. Yet this is only an illusion due to the tremendous distance the galaxy is from Earth.

M51 Galaxy Photo by Tom Arnold
M51 - the Whirlpool Galaxy - Photo by Kirkpatrick Planetarium Director Tom Arnold

The darker, reddish material in the spiral arms are vast star forming regions much like the great nebula in Orion.

To the left of the main spiral is the bright dwarf companion galaxy which clearly interacting with main part of M51. The small string of stars can be clearly seen streaming between the two major parts of the object. This is because over millions and millions of years as the small companion swung past the main spiral, its intense gravity pulled stars away from M51 and even disrupted the spiral shape of M51s outer spiral arm. This is seen as the kink in the arm closest to the companion.  

Moving to the companion now, its reddish color is due to the intense gravitational distortion and radiation present causing star formation to be intense within it. All of this is because an enormous black hole lurks at its center.