For a while now, May has been an exciting month for space exploration.
Fifty years ago on May 28, two rhesus monkeys, Able and Baker, were launched on a suborbital flight from Cape Canaveral. Two years later (on May 5), astronaut Alan Shepard took a similar trip. Sixteen days after Shepard's successful mission, President Kennedy declared a national goal of putting a man on the moon before the end of that decade. Forty years ago on May 18, the Apollo 10 crew rehearsed the lunar landing that Apollo 11 accomplished two months later.
This May, if all goes well, a space shuttle will complete the final service mission to the incredible Hubble Space Telescope.
Almost any telescope, when properly aimed and focused, can deliver inspirational images: the Orion Nebula, the rings of Saturn, the Andromeda Galaxy, numerous double stars and star clusters and much more.
Many amateurs get serious about viewing in May, since the evening temperatures have moderated somewhat in much of the country. Annual Astronomy Day is scheduled each May. This year the date is May 2.
The usually reliable Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks on the morning of May 6. The dust particles, which we see as "shooting stars" when they encounter Earth's atmosphere, were cast off by Halley's Comet and linger in its orbital path. We cross that path in early May each year.
The waxing gibbous moon won't set until after 4 a.m. That leaves about a half hour of prime viewing before twilight begins. That'll be your best time to spot a few meteors. They are typically fast-moving with long tails.
The shower's radiant point is in Aquarius, low in the southeast. Jupiter is nearby in Capricornus. Shining at magnitude minus 2.4, the giant planet will be easy to spot shortly after it rises (about 3 a.m. on May 1 and several minutes earlier each night thereafter throughout the month).
Venus, in Pisces, trails Jupiter in the predawn sky, rising a couple of hours later. It's so bright (magnitude minus 4.4) that it can be seen easily in morning twilight.
The moon will be near Jupiter on the morning of the 17th and near Venus on the mornings of the 20th and 21st.
You might be able to spot Mars in the predawn sky beginning in mid-May. It rises about 15 minutes after Venus and is much fainter (magnitude 1.2).
If you're out in the evening, Saturn will be there to greet you. It's been hanging out in Leo since September 2006. Aside from the moon, which will be nearby on May 3, it'll be the brightest object in the neighborhood. It is ideally positioned for viewing, high in the southern sky after the end of evening twilight.
Early in May, you should be able to spot tiny Mercury near the western horizon shortly after sunset. The Pleiades star cluster is just north (to the right) of Mercury, and might be visible in a small scope or binoculars.
Lewis McCool gazes at stars through a 10-inch Dobsonian from his Dolores home.