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The Buzz

May Sky Watching: Shooting Stars And A Supermoon




(Photo via Shutterstock)

May begins at the tail end of one meteor shower and in the midst of yet another, so if you keep your eyes on the sky as April gives way to May you might be lucky enough to wish upon a falling star.

While the Lyrid meteor shower comes to a close on April 30, the Eta Aquarids are well under way and approaching their peak. The Eta Aquarids last from April 19 to May 18, with peak activity the night of May 4 into May 5, according to the American Meteor Society.

Meteors are leftover bits and particles from comets and broken asteroids. Each year, Earth passes through the debris trails from these comets and asteroids, according to NASA. The leftover bits and particles collide with Earth's atmosphere, causing them to disintegrate and leaving bright and sometimes colorful streaks in the dark sky, which is what we see as meteors.

The meteors associated with the Eta Aquarids are from Comet Halley, also known as Halley's Comet or 1P/Halley, NASA reports. It takes about 76 years for the comet to orbit the sun. It was last seen from Earth in 1986, and it will next be seen in 2061. The meteors associated with the comet can be seen every year, however.

Shooting stars from the Eta Aquarids can be seen in both the northern and southern hemispheres, but they are best viewed south of the Equator, NASA reports. Here in the northern hemisphere, meteors from the shower typically occur at a rate of about 10 per hour.

The meteors from the Eta Aquarids are referred to as "earth-grazers" because they appear just above the horizon, NASA reports. Their radiant — where they appear to come from in the night sky — is the constellation Aquarius. One of the brightest stars in the constellation is Eta Aquarii, giving rise to the meteor shower's name.

After the Eta Aquarids there will be a lull in meteor shower activity until July, when three separate showers will be active, including the headline-grabbing Perseid meteor shower, the meteor society reports. This year, peak activity for the Perseids will be the night of August 11 into August 12. 

May also gives us the second supermoon of the year — or the third, depending on what criteria you use. Some sky-watching groups say 2021 has four supermoons — in March, April, May and June — while others say only the April and May moons are supermoons. 

The discrepancy occurs because supermoon is not an official astronomical term, so there is no exact definition, according to NASA. By NASA's standards, the April and May full moons are supermoons. Another generally accepted standard is that supermoons occur when a full moon is within 90% of the closest possible approach to Earth, according to Space.com. By that standard, the March, April, May and June moons are all supermoons.

May's full moon will be on May 26, and it will reach its fullest point at 6:14 a.m. The full moon in May is called the flower moon because it is the month when wildflowers become more plentiful across the landscape, according to The Old Farmer's Almanac. Other nicknames for May's full moon include the budding moon, frog moon and planting moon.

A total lunar eclipse will also occur with May's full moon, but it will not be visible in the eastern United States, according to NASA. The next lunar eclipse that will be visible in our area will be in November, but it will be only a partial eclipse. The next total lunar eclipse that will be visible from Illinois will be in May 2022.

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