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Shortest lunar month of 2016 starts May 6

Simulated view of the cycle of the moon's phases from new moon to new moon. This cycle is known as the lunar month. From the years 1760 to 2200, the longest lunar month was 29 days 19 hours and 58 minutes and the shortest 29 days 6 hours and 34 minutes.

Simulated view of the moon’s phases. The period of time from new moon to new moon is known as the lunar month, lunation or synodic month. From the years 1760 to 2200, the longest lunar month spans 29 days 19 hours and 58 minutes (Dec. 9, 1787 to Jan. 8, 1778) while the shortest lasts for 29 days 6 hours and 34 minutes (June 12 to July 12, 1885).

The shortest lunar month of the year starts with the new moon on May 6, 2016! What is a lunar month? It’s just the duration between successive new moons. It’s also called a lunation or synodic month. Although the lunar month has a mean period of 29.53059 days (29 days 12 hours and 44 minutes), the actual length varies throughout the year. We list the lunar months of 2016 for you, highlighting the shortest and longest lunar months of 2016 inside…

Just 40 light-years away, 3 potentially habitable planets

Imagined view from the surface of one of the newly discovered planets, with ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 in the background. Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Imagined view from the surface of one of the newly discovered planets, with ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 in the background. Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

We don’t need to look for Earth-like planets exclusively around sun-like stars. Ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 hosts 3 potentially habitable Earth-sized planets, say researchers.

Orbit like a comet, rocky like an asteroid

Artist's impression of the unique object C/2014 S3 (PANSTARRS). Observations with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, and the Canada France Hawai`i Telescope, show that this is the first object to be discovered that is on a long-period cometary orbit, but that has the characteristics of a pristine inner Solar System asteroid. It may provide important clues about how the Solar System formed. Because the object has spent most of its life away from the inner Solar System it suffered very few collisions, and its surface displays few or no craters. As it formed in the same region as the Earth did, it is mostly rocky, and therefore has only very limited cometary activity.

Artist’s concept of the unique object C/2014 S3 (PANSTARRS). Image via ESO/M. Kornmesser.

Astronomers are calling it a Manx comet, for the tailless cat species. They first believed C/2014 S3 (PANSTARRS) was a long-period comet without a tail, but, on studying its light, found that it more closely resembles a rocky asteroid. Now they think this object is an asteroid, formed billions of years ago in the inner solar system and ejected early on to the deep freeze of space in our solar system’s Oort Cloud.

Astronomical events in 2016

View larger. | Meteor over the Montana Rockies by John Ashley.  Photo taken April 21, 2015.

Meteor over the Montana Rockies by John Ashley.

Dates of major moon phases, conjunctions and oppositions of planets, meteor showers and other important dates in 2016, from astronomer Fred Espenak.

Milky Way over Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica

View larger. | Photo taken April 11, 2016, in La Fortuna de San Carlos, Costa Rica, by Sergio Vindas. Visit Sergio online.

Photo taken April 11, 2016, in La Fortuna de San Carlos, Costa Rica, by Sergio Vindas.

“Since three years ago, we have planned to shoot this photo. We went to the zone repeatedly but every time we got nothing … until now.” – Sergio Vindas

Drive a spike to star Spica in May

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Once you’ve used the Big Dipper to find the orange star Arcturus, you can continue on to find the star Spica, brightest light in the constellation Virgo.

Inhospitable Danakil Depression hosts extreme life

Hydrothermal system at the Danakil Depression. The yellow deposits are a variety of sulphates and the red areas are deposits of iron oxides. Copper salts colour the water green. Image credit: Felipe Gomez/Europlanet 2020 RI

Hydrothermal system at the Danakil Depression. The yellow deposits are a variety of sulphates and the red areas are deposits of iron oxides. Copper salts colour the water green. Image credit: Felipe Gomez/Europlanet 2020 RI

In Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, near-boiling water bubbles up from underground, high salt concentrations create yellow towers, toxic vapor fogs the air. Can any life survive there? Scientists are trying to find out.

Guide to Mars’ opposition on May 22

View larger. | Halo around the moon with Mars, Antares and Saturn sheltering inside it, Photo by Stephen Marceau in Eastern Australia, March 2, 2016.

Stephen Marceau in Eastern Australia caught Mars, Saturn and the star Antares inside a lunar halo on March 2, 2016.

On May 22, 2016, Earth will fly between Mars and the sun, bringing the red planet closer to Earth than it’s been for over a decade. Astronomers call this event an opposition of Mars, and, although Mars’ oppositions typically come every other year, some bring Mars especially close. That’s the case this year. Follow the links inside to learn more.

Video: Mars and Saturn in 2016

Video of this year’s oppositions of Mars and Saturn, in front of the constellations Libra and Scorpius. Notice Mars appearing larger around its May 22 opposition! Lots more, plus essential links, inside.

Everything you need to know: Eta Aquarid meteor shower

View larger. | The 2013 Eta Aquarid meteor shower was fantastic as viewed from Earth's Southern Hemisphere.  Colin Legg created this composite of his experience on May 6, 2013.  He wrote, 'Composite of approximately 50 images containing 26 meteors, meteor train, 17 % moon, zodiacal light and Pilbara desert.  60 km South of Newman, Western Australia.'

The 2013 Eta Aquarid meteor shower was fantastic as viewed from Earth’s Southern Hemisphere. Colin Legg of Australia created this composite of his experience. He wrote, ‘Composite of approximately 50 images containing 26 meteors, meteor train, 17 % moon, zodiacal light and Pilbara desert.’

In 2016, the forecast calls for the greatest number of Eta Aquarid meteors to light up the predawn darkness on May 5 and 6. It should be a good year for this shower, with the May 6 new moon guaranteeing deliciously dark skies for the 2016 Eta Aquarids. This shower favors the Southern Hemisphere, ranking as one of the finest showers of the year. At mid-northern latitudes, these meteors don’t fall so abundantly, though mid-northern meteor watchers will catch some, too, and might be lucky enough to catch an earthgrazer – a bright, long-lasting meteor that travels horizontally across the sky – before dawn. Follow the links inside to learn more about the Eta Aquarids!