SJAA Ephemeris May 2002 | SJAA Home | Contents | Previous | Next

The Shallow Sky

May Planets

Akkana Peck


All the easily visible naked-eye planets make a fine cluster in the May evening sky. Why not take a tour of them?

We begin our tour just past sunset with Mercury, low in the twilight sky and showing near half phase as the month begins, and rapidly growing in size and shrinking in phase until its crescent disappears for inferior conjunction — when the planet passes closest to being directly between us and the sun — on the 27th.

Not far above Mercury is Saturn, which is ending a fine season of ring observing. This low in the sky, it'll be hard to see details in its ring system, but we'll still be able to catch a glimpse of the ringed planet for most of the month.

Venus and Mars make a fairly close pair in the early parts of the month, passing by Saturn for a nice triple on May 6. The actual conjunction of Venus and Mars happens on the 10th, when they will be only 3 degrees apart, bright Venus, showing roughly half its disk, greatly outshining the smaller and more distant red planet.

A slim crescent moon makes close passes with all three of these planets on May 14th — from other parts of the world it will actually occult them, but here in San Jose we'll only see close passes. It will be less than a degree from Venus and Mercury at around 1 p.m., so if you're willing to hunt the moon in the daytime you might be able to fit all three in the same low-power eyepiece field.

Higher up above Venus and Mars is brilliant Jupiter, putting on a great show for observers, with wonderful detail still visible in its cloud bands, and lots of storm activity still taking place, white ovals forming and disappearing and gaps in the bands constantly changing. It's not too late to get some good views before it disappears!

The fainter outer planets — Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto — are all in the morning sky now, Neptune in Capricornus and Uranus having moved into nearby Aquarius, and Pluto leading them in Ophiuchus, visible to motivated searchers who stay up late to catch our distant neighbor.

In addition, there are lots of occultations and eclipses this month — but sadly, none of them are visible from San Jose, with the exception of the penumbral lunar eclipse in the wee hours of May 25-26, when the moon sets shortly after first contact.


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