Wonders of the winter sky this month: May

Learn about what celestial objects you can observe in the near-winter skies this month in May!

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The Southern Pleiades open cluster. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

This article is focused on constellations visible in the Southern Hemisphere, specifically New Zealand in May 2019.

As we approach winter in the Southern Hemisphere, we say farewell to some constellations and welcome others. Read on to find out what celestial objects you can observe this month in New Zealand!

Image of the Milky Way running overhead, taken at Lake Tekapo, NZ in March 2019 by the author.

Planets

Venus is visible in the morning this month and rises before dawn.

Saturn rises in the south-eastern horizon at about 10pm at the start of May and about 8pm by the end. Look for its rings and moons through binoculars or a telescope.

Jupiter rises at around 8pm at the start of May and by the end of the month appears after sunset. Its moons are best visible through binoculars or a telescope.

Moon

New Moon is on the 5th of May, after which the moon continues waxing until full moon on the 19th of May, after which it wanes.

At the start of the month, the moon starts setting later. On the 6th of May moonset is just after sunset, leaving a dark sky for the rest of the night. By the 18th of May, the moon rises at about 5pm and sets at around 6am. By the end of the month the moon rises at around 3.45am and sets at around 3.30pm, leaving nice and dark skies.

Constellations

Centaurus

Centaurus the Centaur is a prominent constellation, which most agreeably represents Chiron the centaur, who was a mentor to many Greek heroes, as the legend goes. He was raised to the sky when he died after accidentally being shot by Hercules’ poisoned arrow. Centaurus is visible roughly on the eastern/south-eastern horizon.

The constellation Centaurus. Image source: Stellarium.

One of the best targets in Centaurus is the globular cluster, Omega (ω) Centauri. A stunning globular cluster, it can be seen through binoculars. It is the largest globular cluster which can be seen by the naked eye and is 11.5 billion years old and approximately 15,788 light years away.

The globular cluster Omega Centauri. Image source: Flickr.

Another interesting target in Centaurus is the Rich Man’s Jewel Box, NGC 3766, which is an open cluster of approximately 50-60 stars and is located at a distance of roughly 5,692 light years away.

The Rich Man’s Jewel Box open cluster. Image source: ESO.

Yet another perhaps hard-to-spot target is NGC 3918, the Little Blue Planetary Nebula. It appears as a little blue dot, resembling a planet, if a large enough telescope is used.

The Little Blue Planetary Nebula. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Carina

Carina the Keel used to be part of the larger constellation Argo Navis. Its name is Latin for a ship’s keel. The other parts of Argo Navis include Vela the Sails and Puppis the Poop Deck. Carina has a few interesting targets, and is visible on the south-eastern/southern horizon.

The constellation Carina, shown as part of the old constellation Argo Navis with its two other parts. Image source: Stellarium.

One of the most famous southern hemisphere targets in Carina is NGC 3372, the Eta Carina Nebula, a diffuse cloud of HII gas surrounding the hypergiant star Eta Carinae. It is located approximately 6,524 light years away.

The Eta Carina Nebula. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Wishing Well Cluster, NGC 3532, is also a beautiful open star cluster nearby the Eta Carina Nebula, and looks especially great through a telescope, as it is an approximate distance of 1,600 lights years away. Another star cluster, the Diamond Cluster, NGC 2516, is a naked-eye open cluster with two red stars in the middle, and is closer to us at roughly 1,100 light years.

The Wishing Well open cluster. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Southern Pleiades is the Southern Hemisphere counterpart to The Pleaides, and can be seen with the naked eye as a fuzzy patch. It is actually a small open cluster, enhanced by a telescope.

The Southern Pleiades open cluster. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Vela

Vela the Sails is another part of the old constellation Argo Navis. Vela has a few interesting objects to observe, mainly the Southern Ring Nebula, NGC 3132, which is a planetary nebula that is best viewed through a telescope. It is located at a distance of roughly 4,100 light years away.

The Southern Ring Nebula. Image source: Flickr.

Cancer

Cancer the Crab is currently located in the lower north-western/northern horizon, and will continue to set lower during the month. Cancer is a faint constellation and has some objects of interest.

The constellation Cancer. Image source: Stellarium.

The Beehive Cluster or Praesepe, M44, is an open star cluster located approximately 580 light years away. It is best seen through binoculars or a telescope, although it is visible as a faint fuzzy patch to the naked eye.

The Beehive Cluster, imaged with Mars. Image source: Flickr.

The Golden Eye Cluster, M67, is an open star cluster at a distance of roughly 2,800 light years away. It is estimated to be approximately 4 billion years old.

Corvus

The constellation Corvus. Image source: Stellarium.

Corvus the Crow is a small and otherwise unremarkable constellation, located high on the north-eastern horizon. However with a decent telescope, one may be able to see the colliding Antennae galaxies, located at a distance of 67 million light years.

The colliding Antennae galaxies. Image source: NASA Hubble.

Crater

The constellation Crater. Image source: Stellarium.

Crater the Cup is another small constellation located next to Corvus. It is located high on the northern/north-eastern horizon and contains two faint galaxies, both close enough to each other that they can be seen in the same field of view using a telescope. One of the galaxies, NGC 3511, is an active spiral galaxy located 56 million light years away, and the other galaxy NGC 3513 is a barred spiral galaxy located 55 million light years away.

The active spiral galaxy NGC 3511. Image source: PS1 Public Science Archive.

Leo

Leo the Lion was slain by Hercules as one of his first labours. It has many interesting objects to observe using a telescope. It is located on the north-western/northern horizon and will set below the horizon in July.

The constellation Leo. Image source: Stellarium.

The Leo Triplet contains three galaxies, M65, M66 and NGC 3628, which are visible in the same field of view. They are all active galaxies and are each located a few million years away.

The Leo Triplet of galaxies. Image source: Flickr.

Another pair of galaxies, M95 and M96 are also visible in their own same field of view. They are both active barred spiral galaxies located roughly 30-32 million light years away.

The pair of galaxies, M95 and M96. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Virgo

Virgo the Virgin is the second-largest constellation in the sky and contains some interesting targets. It is located on the northern/north-eastern horizon and will continue to rise, until it sets in August.

The constellation of Virgo. Image source: Stellarium.

One of the most well-known objects in Virgo is the Sombrero Galaxy, M104. Spanish for ‘hat’, it does indeed closely resemble its namesake and is an active spiral galaxy located about 29 million light years away.

The Sombrero Galaxy. Image source: Hubble.

The Virgo Cluster is a cluster of about 1500 galaxies and is located at a distance of approximately 65 million light years to us. It is considered to be the centre of the Virgo Supercluster, which we (the Milky Way) are located at the edges of. It is best observed through a telescope.

The Virgo Cluster. Image source: ESO.

Hydra

Hydra the Water Snake is a large constellation stretching the sky. It has some interesting star clusters and galaxies.

The constellation of Hydra. Image source: Stellarium.

M48 is an open cluster, which can be found near Hydra’s tongue. It can be found by the naked eye, and is about 1500 light years away.

A globular cluster, M68, can be found near the tail of Hydra. It is about 33,600 light years away.

The Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, M83, can be found near the tail of Hydra. It is an active barred spiral galaxy located about 15 million years away.

The Southern Pinwheel Galaxy. Image source: NASA Goddard.

Lupus

Lupus the Wolf is a Southern Hemisphere constellation. One object to observe is NGC 5822, an open star cluster. It is best viewed through binoculars.

The constellation Lupus. Image source: Stellarium.

Circumpolar Constellations

Crux

Crux the Southern Cross is one of the most prominent southern constellations despite its small size, and features in many Southern Pacific countries’ flags, including New Zealand.

Image of the Crux, taken at Lake Tekapo, NZ in March 2019 by the author.

One of the most dazzling objects in Crux is the Jewel Box Cluster, NGC 4755, an open cluster of stars. It is located approximately 11,200 light years away. Read more about it here.

The Jewel Box Cluster. Image source: ESO.

Another interesting feature in Crux is the Coalsack Nebula, a giant cloud of gas and dust obscuring everything behind it. It is visible to the naked eye and is located 600 light years away.

Dorado

Dorado the Swordfish is a small constellation in the south-western horizon. It is most easily recognisable due to the presence of the Large Magellanic Cloud nearby.

The constellation Dorado. Image source: Stellarium.

The Tarantula Nebula, NGC 2070 is a naked-eye nebula containing many stars. It is located approximately 170,000 light years away.

The Tarantula Nebula. Image source: ESO.

The Large Magellanic Cloud appears as a naked-eye large fuzzy patch in the sky, however is actually a dwarf galaxy, located approximately 163,000 light years away.

Tucana

Tucana the Toucan is another small constellation, and contains the Small Magellanic Cloud.

The constellation Tucana. Image source: Stellarium.

The second-best globular cluster in the sky after Omega Centauri is 47 Tucanae, NGC 104. It is looks impressive through binoculars or a telescope, but is visible to the naked eye. It is located about 15,300 light years away.

The globular cluster 47 Tucanae. Image source: NASA.

The Small Magellanic Cloud is also another dwarf galaxy located 200,000 light years away.

Keep your eyes lifted to the skies and get some quality stargazing done! As we approach winter, we will get clearer and clearer skies, so head out to your nearest observatory and get observing!

If you liked this article, please like and share! This story was originally published on my WordPress blog ‘The Wonders of the Cosmos’, here.