May: Meteor shower among a cluster of highlights

NGC 3532, the Pincushion Cluster, is an open cluster in the constellation Carina. Its population of some 150 stars of 7th magnitude or fainter includes seven red giants and seven white dwarfs. Also commonly known as the Football Cluster, the Black Arrow Cluster and the Wishing Well Cluster, on May 20, 1990, it became the first target ever observed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo by MPAS member Steven Mohr

The beautiful section of the Milky Way around Crux, the Southern Cross – including the dark nebula known as the Coalsack – takes centre stage looking south in May. There are several fine open clusters on view in Carina, many nestled among the rich star fields of the Milky Way. NGC 3532, the Pincushion Cluster, can be seen with the naked eye, but binoculars reveal its many twinkling stars well. The magnitude 4.2 cluster NGC 3114 is an interesting target for a small telescope, while NGC 2516, the Southern Beehive, is a good target for binoculars.

The large constellation Centaurus, the Centaur, sits within the stunning star fields of the Milky Way. It is home to what is arguably the finest globular cluster in the whole night sky – the magnificent Omega Centauri, or NGC 5139.

The constellation’s two brightest stars are Alpha and Beta Centauri, known more familiarly to astronomers as Rigil Kentaurus and Hader. The constellation is fully visible between the latitudes of 25°N and 90°S. For reference, the MPAS observatory at Mount Martha is located at 38°S.

This year the annual Eta Aquariid meteor shower peaks around May 6-7 and is caused by the dust left over from Halley’s Comet entering our atmosphere and vaporising. You can expect to see roughly 30 meteors an hour if you are very lucky. The meteors appear to be coming from a point near the star Eta Aquarii in Aquarius, and tend to be quite fast-moving. The further south you are, the better view of the shower you will get.

The easiest way to find the location of the constellations is to simply download a free app to your phone, such as Stellarium, Sky Map, SkySafari, or Star Walk 2. Once installed, just hold your phone up and explore the night sky, identify stars, constellations, planets, clusters, and so on.

By Nerida Langcake
This article appeared in the May 2021 issue of the Mornington Peninsula Magazine.