Backyard Astronomy: May 2020

Mars (NASA)

Astronomy is a great way to reduce stress. Step outside, unplug and look up at the sky – you never know what you will see!

Planetarium specialist Katy Downing of the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center shares the visible planets and constellations to observe in the morning and evening skies.

Morning Sky

Before sunrise, look for Jupiter, Saturn and Mars shining brightly in the east. Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and is mostly composed of two elements: hydrogen and helium. The “gas giant” is fairly close to Earth, and will appear the brightest of the three planets in the morning sky, followed by Mars, then Saturn – the most distant planet in our solar system to be seen with the naked eye. 

2020 will be a great year to view Mars. More than any other bright planet, its appearance changes year to year due to the distance between Earth and Mars, which changes as they orbit around the sun. Sometimes Earth and Mars are on the same side of the solar system, which happens every 2 years and 50 days. Earth will pass between Mars and the sun next on Oct. 13, 2020, and the red planet will increasingly brighten in our sky through that time.

In mid-May, a crescent moon will pass through the line of planets, offering a spectacular view. Your favorite summertime constellations will soon appear in the morning sky – look for Sagittarius the Archer and Scorpius the Scorpion near the planets in the southeast.

Evening Sky

Some people may be familiar with the terms “Morning Star” and “Evening Star,” but did you know that both nicknames are referencing the same planet – Venus? The second-largest of the four terrestrial planets is incredibly bright in our skies, due to its proximity to Earth and the high reflectivity of its atmosphere. Often one of the first objects people notice in the sky, Venus orbits the Sun faster than Earth and changes its position in our skies relatively quickly. Look for Venus west in the evening sky through mid-May.

As the skies clear, constellations become more visible. Look high in the sky for Leo the Lion, resembling a backwards question mark with a triangle to the east of it. To the east of Leo are two bright stars, Arcturus and Spica. The Big Dipper will be high in the sky after sunset; look for the seven stars making the iconic dipper high and to the north. Follow the arc of the handle to the south and you will find Arcturus.

A full moon will grace our skies the evening of May 7. Before then, look for the moon in the early evening. After May 7, look for a waning moon after sunset. Fun Fact: The month of May’s full moon is sometimes called a “Flower Moon” in honor of the blooming flowers of springtime.

Lake Erie Nature & Science Center offers nature-based education and virtual learning for all ages. Visit for parenting tips, what you can discover in the night sky, and fun and educational experiments.

Morgan Paskert

Morgan Paskert is on staff at Lake Erie Nature & Science Center.

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Volume 12, Issue 9, Posted 9:41 AM, 05.05.2020