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The term "supermoon" was coined by the astrologer Richard Nolle in 1979 and refers to either a new or full Moon that occurs within 90% of perigee, its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit.
Under this definition, in a typical year there can be 3 or 4 full supermoons in a row and (about half a year apart) 3 or 4 new supermoons in a row. In practice, what catches the public's attention are the full Moons that appear biggest and brightest each year.
For 2020, the four full Moons from February to May meet this 90% threshold, with the full Moons in March and April were nearly tied in size and brightness.
Many of us are staying home these days, and it's normal to feel kind of cooped up, yearning for wide open spaces and more distant horizons. If you find yourself feeling like that, this might be a good time to remember that we're IN space, cruising through the solar system on our pale blue dot, with a vast, three-dimensional universe all around us. And we have an outstanding view!
Now, we often tend to look at the sky as a curved dome above our heads — a sort of real-life version of a planetarium dome, covered in a carpet of stars. But remember, in reality, it's anything but flat. The night sky is the deepest, most open expanse of space you could possibly look into.
Here's a look at what you're seeing when gazing at the sky in May: Looking toward the west in the hour after sunset, here are the bright objects you'll most likely be able to see: The closest of these objects is the planet Venus in our own solar system, at about 35 million miles from Earth. The next closest is the star Sirius. It's the brightest star in our sky, and also one of the most nearby, at about 9 light years away. Several other bright stars in the May early evening sky are a couple, to a few dozen, light years away. Much farther out is the red giant star that forms the shoulder of Orion, Betelgeuse, at around 500 light years from Earth.
And although you might not be able to see it, the faint band of the outer Milky Way stretches across the sky here. So when you're looking westward in May's early evening sky, think about how you're looking outward through the disk of our galaxy, toward its outer edges, thousands of light years away.
You'll get a different perspective looking into the sky in the hour before sunrise. Facing south, the nearest objects are: the Moon, at about 240,000 miles away, then Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, at hundreds of millions of miles. The rapidly rotating star Altair and the star Fomalhaut, with its debris disk and orbiting planet, lie much farther away, at 17 and 25 light years from Earth. And the May morning sky also has its own very distant red giant star: Antares, at 554 light years away.
And finally, across the background, visible under very dark skies is the Milky Way. Here, you're looking into the center of the Milky Way galaxy — densely packed with stars and a supermassive black hole, some 27,000 light years from Earth.
The night sky that begins right above your own roof is really the shore of a deep cosmic ocean. Here's hoping this brings some comfort if you feel like you need a little space.
Monday, May 4
On Monday, May 4, the planet Mercury will be passing on the far side of the Sun as seen from the Earth, called superior conjunction. Because Mercury orbits inside of the orbit of Earth, Mercury will be shifting from the morning sky to the evening sky and will begin emerging from the glow of dusk about 30 minutes after sunset on the west-northwestern horizon after May 8, 2020. Mercury will begin appearing above the horizon at the time evening twilight ends after May 16, 2020.
Tuesday, May 5
The Eta-Aquariid meteor shower will peak around the early morning of May 5, 2020, but the light of the nearly full Moon will interfere, as it will not set until after morning twilight begins.
Tuesday night, at 11:03 PM EDT, the Moon will be at perigee, its closest to the Earth for this orbit.
Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, May 5 to 6, 2020, the bright star appearing to the lower right of the nearly full Moon will be Spica.
Thursday, May 7
The final "supermoon" of 2020 will be on May 7, 2020.
Friday, May 8
After about Friday evening, May 8, 2020, the planet Mercury will begin emerging from the glow of dusk on the west-northwestern horizon (depending upon viewing conditions) about 30 minutes after sunset.
Tuesday, May 12
Tuesday morning, May 12, 2020, the planets Jupiter and Saturn will appear to the upper left of the waning gibbous Moon.
Friday, May 15
On Friday morning, May 15, 2020, the planet Mars will appear above the waning crescent Moon.
Saturday, May 23
On Saturday evening, May 23, 2020, if you have a clear view of the horizon toward the west-northwest, you may be able to see the thin waxing crescent Moon below the planets Venus and Mercury.
Thursday and Friday, May 28 & 29
On Thursday evening into early Friday morning, May 28 to 29, 2020, the bright star Regulus will appear to the left of the waxing crescent Moon.