ALTHOUGH the nights are getting shorter, May is traditionally the best month for getting good views of the planet Mercury in the evening sky. As a second highlight we also have a Super Moon this May.

Between May 5 and May 20, if you look to the south west you will see a bright pinkish looking ‘star’ at around 9pm just after sunset.

Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system and the closest planet to the Sun. Another bonus this year will be that on May 13 when Mercury will be seen just above a thin crescent Moon; a wonderful sight for astro-photographers.

Mercury only gives observers two really good chances to see it during the course of the year; in the evening sky in May, and in the early morning sky just before sunrise, usually in November.

The Moon orbits the Earth once a month, not in a circular path but in an elliptical or egg-shaped path.

This means that there will be a time when the Moon is a little closer than normal. We experience this with the May Full Moon. Our nearest neighbour in space will be about 50,000 kilometres closer than normal to the Earth and will appear about 13.5 per cent larger.

The May night sky is the first of the year in which Orion is completely absent.

The brilliant Hunter has vanished below the horizon and of the other winter stars only Capella in Auriga, together with Castor and Pollux in Gemini, remain in view.

The North Star can still be found by using the pointer stars in the Plough. These are the two furthest stars from the handle.

A line drawn from the right hand star through the left and continued for some distance across the sky will reach the North Star.

The North Star, or Polaris, to give it its proper name, is the end star of the Small Plough, a much fainter version of the more familiar Plough.

Any hints of mist in the sky make the pattern of the Small Plough difficult to find except for the red coloured star Kocab which is one of the end stars of the blade.

Another interesting star to try to locate is called Thuban in the constellation of Draco the Dragon.

Thuban lies midway between Mizar, the middle star of the handle of the Plough, and Kocab, which is often referred to as the ‘Guardian of the Pole’.

Thuban has a claim to fame in that although it is a faint star, it was the North Star at the time of the building of the great pyramids in Egypt. The pyramids were aligned to Thuban rather than Polaris.

The position of the North Star changes over a long period of time due to the wobbling of the Earth.

If you image a spinning top just about to fall over, the handle appears to draw a circle. This, of course, only takes a fraction of a second.

If you imagine the Earth like that spinning top, a line projected from the North Pole on Earth will draw a circle in the sky.

It takes 23,500 years for the Earth to wobble once. Therefore, around 2,000 BCE Thuban was the North Star, today it is Polaris and in about the year 14,000 CE it will be the bright star Vega.

Staying with the northern sky, this is a good time to look for the stars that form Draco the Dragon. Draco is formed by a long curve of stars that swirl around the North Star.

The head of the dragon is formed by a quadrilateral of four stars at the end of this line of stars; it can be easily found because it is close to the bright star Vega, one of the stars of the Summer Triangle. The four stars are not bright but are quite distinctive.

Harry Potter fans reading this might recognise the name ‘Draco’ which was used by J.K. Rowling to create Draco Malfoy, one of Harry’s opponents.

Last month I explained how to find Arcturus by following the curve of the handle of the Plough.

If we then continue the curve around it will point to Spica in Virgo the Virgin, which is now due south and can be seen at its best this month.

Regulus in Leo the Lion can be found at the base of the prominent backwards question mark that indicates the head of the lion and is now very prominent in the south. Both Spica and Regulus are also at their best this month.

One last star to mention which can be seen easily during late spring evenings is Cor Caroli, the only bright star in the constellation of Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs. Although not as bright as the stars that form the Plough it is still easy to see.

This star can be found beneath the handle of the Plough. The hunting dogs of Canes Venatici are sometimes depicted being on a leash in the hands of Bootes the Herdsman.

The constellation was added to the sky by Sir John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, and Cor Caroli was named in honour of the murdered monarch King Charles I.

The Planets in May:

As already mentioned Mercury is a splendid looking object in the south western sky. The much brighter planet Venus is also visible in the south west, lying below Mercury and easier to see.

The gas giants Jupiter and Saturn are now rising in the eastern sky and will be best seen around 4am, before the Sun rises. Mars is now so close to the Sun that it is very difficult to see.

Meteor Showers:

On the night of May 5/6 the Eta Aquarid meteor shower will be at its maximum. These meteors are the remains of Halley’s Comet, one of the most famous of all comets. Unfortunately the meteor shower will be seen low down in the sky so not that many meteors will be visible. It is best seen from countries much further south than Britain. However, if you are out on that night, in particular the early hours of May 6th and you see a meteor, you will probably have seen a small part of Halley’s comet burning up in the atmosphere.

Phases of the Moon for May:

As I mentioned earlier the Full Moon will be a Super Moon.

Last Quarter 3; New Moon 11; First Quarter 19; Full Moon 26.

The Full Moon in May is called the Flower Moon. The flowers in the fields and in the gardens are now becoming abundant for everyone to see.

Due to the current coronavirus restrictions, there will be no meetings of the Earby Astronomical Society until further notice.