Night Sky


What to look for in the Caribbean sky in May 2024

By Jim Ulik

Ancient civilizations used the movements of stars and planets to measure time or forecast planting and harvesting seasons. Uncommon events such as comets were omens predicting doom. From the Vikings to the Polynesians, observing the stars’ motions led to the ability to navigate the Earth’s oceans. At least the heavens, as most of us know, can’t be faked or hacked for navigational purposes.   This month’s list of celestial events includes annual observances put into practice by professionals or enthusiasts of space and science. Maybe these events will inspire you to dust off your sextant and practice your celestial navigation skills. At the very least you might brush up on your coastal navigation skills using your old navigation tools and paper charts. After all, there is also the potential loss of GPS signals due to solar flares or Coronal Mass Ejections (CME).

Today there is the increasing threat of cyberattacks on Global Positioning System satellites. The GPS satellites placed into orbit by the US aren’t the only ones at risk. The GPS constellations launched by the European Union, India, China, Russia and Japan are all at risk due to attacks from hackers. To be sure, not all problems are related to GPS satellites. It’s not intentional, but significant problems are due to mapping software errors. 

 “… It is a historical fact: Sharing the world has never been humanity’s defining attribute.” Professor X from X2: X-Men United.

Wednesday, May 01

Three visible planets will trail behind the rising Moon this morning. By 0500 Saturn can be seen followed by Mars then Mercury. Venus is lost in the Sun’s glare as it is a few days away from passing behind the Sun. Look for Venus to reappear as an evening “star” in the middle of July. Neptune sits invisibly between Saturn and Mars. About an hour after the Moon crosses the meridian it will reach its third quarter phase.

Friday, May 03

The lineup of planets at 0700 on May 03

The waning Moon makes a close approach to Saturn this morning. Saturn lies north northeast of the Moon. Both objects are in the constellation Aquarius.

Saturday, May 04

Star Wars Day has finally arrived. This is an international celebration of the Star Wars film series (not the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) proposed under Ronald Reagan). The first organized celebration of Star Wars Day took place in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in 2011. May the force (fourth) be with you?

The Moon’s progression eastward has placed it between Saturn and Mars. Over the following two days the fine crescent Moon can be seen sliding past Mercury.

Sunday, May 05

Today is National Astronaut Day. The day is meant to spark curiosity and motivate young space enthusiasts. Maybe they will improve satellite navigation or identify the next asteroid heading toward Earth.

Along with all the planets passing through the pre-dawn sky there will be a few meteors shooting across the sky. The best time to spot them will be between 0300 and 0500. The Eta Aquarids meteor shower is active April 17 – May 26. These meteors are the remnants left behind from the numerous passes made by comet Halley. The shower peaks today and can yield up to 60 meteors per hour. Most of the activity is seen in the Southern Hemisphere. The rate can reach about 30 meteors per hour in the northern hemisphere.

Monday, May 06

Recovered from Star Wars Day? That’s good because today is International Space Day. It was created by Lockheed Martin Corporation in 1997 as National Space Day. The goal is to promote math, science, technology and engineering education in young people to inspire them to pursue a career in science, especially a career in space related jobs. In 2001, due to its extreme popularity, former astronaut and Senator John Glenn expanded the event to International Space Day.

Tuesday, May 07

The Moon has completed another orbit. It has reached this month’s New Moon phase placing it at its closest approach to the Sun.

Thursday, May 09

Mercury reaches greatest western elongation or separation from the Sun. This is the best time to view Mercury since it will be at its highest point above the horizon in the morning sky.

Friday, May 10

While the Moon isn’t so prominent in the night sky this might be a good time to see some meteors from the eta Lyrids meteor shower. This is a minor shower that is active May 02 – May 13. The shower peaks overnight radiating from an area near the star Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra.

Sunday, May 12

The Moon has come close to hooking the star Pollux. It will pass less than one degree southwest of the brightest twin star in Gemini.

Monday, May 13

The waxing Moon is making its monthly pass of the Beehive Cluster. This open cluster of stars is also known as Messier 44 (M44) and Praesepe (Latin for crib).

Wednesday, May 15

The Moon has reached first quarter. It will reside in the constellation Leo for the night near the star Regulus. Notice that the side lighting enhances the textures of the craters and mountainous surface of the Moon.

Saturday, May 18

Today is the first International Astronomy Day of 2024. It’s intended to promote greater education and understanding of the universe. Take a few minutes to do some stargazing tonight.

Monday, May 20

The Moon makes a close approach to Spica. This double star is the fifteenth brightest star in the night sky. Tonight the star can be identified by its proximity to the Moon. At other times it can be found by following the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle. The first bright star encountered is Arcturus followed by Spica, “Arc to Arcturus (Alpha Bootes) and then spike to Spica.”

Thursday, May 23

The Moon will be located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun and fully illuminated. The Moon will occult or pass in front of Antares. It will take just over two hours before Antares reappears.

Thursday, May 30

The Moon will pass last quarter phase, rising in the middle of the night and appearing prominent in the pre-dawn sky.

Friday, May 31

The Moon and Saturn are close to each other. Just before sunrise,, Saturn can be found less than one degree west of the dark side of the Moon. Both objects are in the constellation Aquarius.

In the News:

GPS is increasingly becoming vulnerable to jamming and spoofing. Signals are manipulated leading to inaccurate positions. This does not only apply to military operations. Companies are in the process of developing alternative position, navigation and timing technologies (PNT) that do not depend on GPS. It is time to dole out some more “Boat Bucks.”

*All times are given as Atlantic Standard Time (AST) unless otherwise noted.

Jim Ulik sails aboard s/v Merengue.

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