May: Winter’s approach produces some cool views

This star trail image shows the apparent motion of stars in the night sky due to Earth’s rotation. It was taken during the most recent public stargazing night at the Mornington Peninsula Astronomical Society and also shows telescopes and red lights used in the field. Photo: MPAS member Jamie Pole

The Milky Way rises high in the south this month, with Sagittarius and Scorpius sitting in the east – a clue that winter is on its way in the southern hemisphere.

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, contains approximately 100 stars and can be viewed with just a pair of binoculars.

The large constellation Centaurus, the Centaur, sits within the stunning star fields of the Milky Way. It is home to arguably the finest globular cluster in the whole night sky: the magnificent Omega Centauri, or NGC 5139. At 10 times the size of the next largest cluster, you can see it easily as a hazy star with the naked eye, whereas a telescope reveals many of its millions of stars in a tight ball. The constellation’s two brightest stars are Alpha and Beta Centauri, known more familiarly to astronomers as Rigil Kentaurus and Hader. Together, Alpha and Beta Centauri form the Southern Pointers, or The Pointers, as they point towards the constellation of Crux.

This year the annual Eta Aquariid meteor shower peaks on the night of May 5-6. It 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.

By Nerida Langcake
This article appeared in the May 2024 issue of the Mornington Peninsula Magazine.