Before we get into the May sky watching events, I would like to introduce you to the American Meteor Society, or AMS for short (www.amsmeteors.org). This non-profit scientific organization was formed in 1911 to “inform, encourage, and support research activities of both amateur and professional astronomers who are directly interested in meteoric astronomy.” A quick scan of the links provided on their menu page on their website leads one to a host of information about meteors and fireballs. By definition, a ‘fireball’ is a very bright meteor, usually brighter than magnitude -4 (which is about the same magnitude of the planet Venus). Fireballs will often leave a visible trail that may last several seconds after it passes. This information is provided because on April 9, 2022, my son and I observed a fireball while driving home from the Houghton area.
We were about five miles outside of Greenland, MI traveling SW on M-26 from Twin Lakes.. At first glimpse, I saw a fast moving object in the upper left corner of the windshield and my first thought was, “Airplane.” By the time I called my son’s attention to it, the object was half way across our field of view. It disappeared behind the tree line to our right, now trailing a bright streak that covered half of the open sky ahead of us. The ‘head’ of the streak seemed to be widening as if the meteor itself was starting to break apart. The path seemed to be mostly parallel to the horizon in front of us and after a few seconds, the bright trail it left behind faded. A quick look at the dashboard clock told us it was 9:40 p.m. EDT. Noting the SW direction we were traveling, my first impression was the meteor’s direction of travel seemed to be toward the NW.
As soon as we got home, I looked up the AMS site and clicked on the ‘report a fireball’ link. The system they use for reporting observations has been greatly simplified in the last decade, so anyone familiar with filling out on-line forms or surveys can easily navigate ths site. The form begins by telling you the kinds of things you should NOT report. It then asks if you have a photo or video of the event. When it asked for our location, I entered ‘M-26, Greenland, MI 49929’ which produced a ‘person’ icon located in the middle of downtown Greenland. I was able to move the icon down M-26 to the approximate location where we saw the fireball.
The site walks you through specific questions about your observation (each section provides very clear instructions about what they are asking for so one does not need a PhD of any kind to provide the information requested). With the form completed, they inform you the observation is now PENDING and will be published in their ‘fireball log’ when compiled.
By the next morning, there had been over thirty observations recorded from Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan (including ours from Greenland). By late afternoon, the number of recorded observations had climbed over 300. The map provided was so covered with icons showing the observer’s locations, it was impossible to see the ‘trajectory arrow’ that had been calculated. Filtering out all but six of the locations uncovered the arrow and gave us a bit of a surprise. From our vantage point, we had guessed it may have crossed Lake Superior. The combined observations showed it first appeared where the southern border of Minnesota meets the western border of Wisconsin (roughly 250 miles as the crow flies from Greenland) and was indeed traveling in a northwesterly direction. One can visit the AMS site and find the information about this event in their ‘fireball log’. If you click on the ‘person icon’ in the upper right, it will provide the information we reported about the whole event.
With that little bit of excitement taken care of, let us get on to the AstroCal happenings for May.
There will not be a lot of choices for planetary observations in the evening hours. Mercury will be low in the WNW early in the month. The planet will fade in brightness quickly and then drop out of sight later in the first week. It will reach inferior conjunction on May 21.
Jupiter, Venus, Mars, and Saturn will continue to populate the southeastern sky in the morning hours. Venus and Jupiter can be seen low in the east at dawn on May 1. The two brightest planets will only be 0.5 degrees apart and will spread farther apart as the month progresses. By month’s end, the gap will have increased to 30 degrees (the width of your closed fist held at arm’s length equals 10 degrees, so three ‘fists’ apart). Jupiter and Mars, on the other hand, will keep getting closer together until they are only 0.6 degrees apart on May 29.
To find Saturn, start with Venus and Saturn low in the east and draw an imaginary line at an upward angle to Mars in the ESE and continue to Saturn in the SE. Venus will be shining at mag -4.1, Jupiter at mag -2.1, Mars at mag +1 and Saturn at +0.9. Both Mars and Saturn will be a little more difficult to see as the dawn skies brighten, so we will call this our May observing challenge.
The eta-Aquariid meteor shower will peak in the morning hours of May 6, but it is not unusual to see increased activity in the nights before and after the peak.
The Lunar highlight of the month will be the Total Lunar Eclipse on May 15/16. The eastern half of the USA will see the entire eclipse beginning on May 15. The umbral phase will start at 10:28 p.m. EDT with totality commencing at 11:29 p.m. EDT. The period of maximum eclipse will be at 12:11 a.m. on May 16. The next Total Lunar Eclipse visible in its entirety across the USA will not take place until March of 2025 while the last was seen in January of 2019. Other Lundar cycle highlights will include a very young Crescent Moon making an appearance low in the western sky 40 minutes after sunset on May 1 and 2, the First Quarter Moon on May 8, the Last Quarter on May 22 and the New Moon on May 30. Enjoy your spring sky watching.
Compiled by Ken Raisanen of WOAS-FM – information provided by Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar, Michigan State University. More information and subscription information can be found on their website at http://abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar/ or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AbramsSkyNotes. Yearly subscriptions cost $12 and can be started anytime.
Top Piece Video – With Venus still playing an important part of morning observations, we could not help but use Shocking Blue’s VENUS as our exclamation point this month.