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Why Milky Way Disappears Above Oregon / Washington Coast in May; Meteor Showers

Published 4/30/24 at 3:22 p.m.
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection

(Portland, Oregon) – Looking up on the Oregon coast, Washington coast, or inland areas like Portland or Tacoma, you may discover there's no Milky Way galaxy at night.. (Photo Oregon Coast Beach Connection: above Cape Foulweather)

If beaches are clear after dark, they're really clear, and looking around it might hit you:

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Where in the hell is the rest of our galaxy? There's an answer to that, and there's some meteor showers coming, too.

According to Jim Todd of Portland's OMSI, that's a common thing in our mid latitudes during May. The great, big band of stars known as the Milky Way does a wee bit of a vanishing act. This month, the disk of our galaxy will lie flat on the horizon, nearly parallel to its plane.

On evenings in May just before midnight, the equator of the Milky Way circles the horizon we're looking at, but does so very close to the rim if not below it.

“As seen from the North Galactic Pole, the Sun and the solar system revolve clockwise around the center or nucleus of the Milky Way Galaxy,” he said. “The galactic plane is the plane in which the majority of a disk-shaped galaxy's mass lies. The directions perpendicular to the galactic plane point to the galactic poles.”

Courtesy OMSI

The North Galactic Pole stands high above us in the constellation Coma Berenices, otherwise known as Berenice's Hair.

Todd said that usually the terms "galactic plane" and "galactic poles" are used to refer specifically to the plane and poles of the Milky Way. That's us – Earth is located in the Milky Way galaxy.

“In this direction, where the glare and the dust of the Milky Way are minimal, the sky beckons you to look at the deep-sky objects beyond the Milky Way.”

Cannon Beach - Oregon Coast Beach Connection

When this low pass of the Milky Way happens, it means we're about halfway between the spring equinox that happened in March and the June Solstice.

For areas along the Washington and Oregon coastline – such as Warrenton, Coos Bay, Yachats or Long Beach - it may still be lurking above the distant line of the ocean. If it's in the east it will surely be gone.

You can learn more about the galaxy and the night sky in Starry Nights Live! shown daily in OMSI's Kendall Planetarium.

May has not just one but two meteor showers hitting their peaks.

Bandon at night, courtesy Manuela Durson Fine Arts 

On May 5, the Eta-Aquariids hit their peak, which might bring up to 10 to 30 meteors each hour. However, they are more visible in the southern hemisphere rather than up here, so it's likely not a whiz-bang event for the Washington coastline or Oregon. Farther south you could see as many as 50 per hour.

The meteors themselves come from Halley's Comet, as Earth passes through the trail of dust left behind that famed nighttime dweller.

Also see Green Nightglow Above Us All the Time, You Just Didn't Know: Washington / Oregon Coast Science

Also coming on are the Eta Lyrids, which peak on May 8, and that coincides with the new moon, providing darker skies for viewing. If you're hanging in spots like Ocean Shores, Port Orford or Manzanita, don't expect to see a lot, however. Even at its height it only produces about three per hour.

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Bandon at night, courtesy Manuela Durson Fine Arts 

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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