A P R I L S K Y W A T C H
by Maya del Mar
Last month I talked about the special treat of being able to see all five of the naked-eye planets in the evening sky at one time. The last time I remember this sight was in about 1980, when I stood on a rooftop and scanned the evening sky. The next time we have this concentration of visibility will be in 32 years!
Catch it now! By the end of the first week in April, elusive Mercury will be gone, retrograding between earth and sun. Mercury next appears in the morning sky in early May. Right now we can see Mercury one binocular field above the horizon 45 minutes after sunset. There is no bright object near it to confuse the viewer.
Above Mercury is brilliant Venus, jewel of the evening. During March its been a pleasure to watch the waxing moon rise up to Venus, and then pass her and move on to connect with Mars and with Saturn. Moon and Venus in juxtaposition have been spectacular. We can see a similar trip this month, especially with crescent moon on April 22 and 23.
Venus is the star of the month. It looks so bright now because it is extra close to earth, about 45 million miles. Venus begins April by hanging out with that beautiful and legendary star cluster, the Pleiades. See how many stars you can count in the Pleiades, often called the Seven Sisters. Viewing through binoculars will really bring out its beauty.
Did you know that the Japanese call the Pleiades "Subaru"? Check out the Subaru logo. It shows a group of stars, with one bright star, probably Venus, similar to our lovely view this month.
The Pleiades is the outstanding star grouping in legends and in almanacs throughout time and throughout the world. They first appeared in print in Chinese annals of 2357 B.C. Even now, Subaru is part of the Japanese Festival of Lanterns, which marks the time when the souls of the dead return to visit their relatives. (Do they know something which weve forgotten?)
Sun is now moving towards the Pleiades, and its light will drown out the Pleiades by the end of the month, as they sink below the horizon together in the sunset sky. Do catch it during this first week of April in its glorious meeting with Venus!
After April 3, Venus begins its climb towards Mars, who appears as a very light orange ghost above and to the left of the Pleiades. There are two reddish stars in this part of the sky, Betelgeuse and Aldeberan. They both appear brighter than Mars, but look for faint Mars above and to the right. Venus continues to close in on Mars, but doesnt catch it. Its moving very slowly now, prior to turning retrograde in May. Notice them close together as the crescent moon passes by on the nights of April 22-23.
Bright, golden Saturn is Moons next stop, just one night later. It sits in the constellation of The Twins, above and to the left of Mars.
As the earth turns eastward, the planets, stars, and constellations appear to be sinking in the west earlier and earlier. Saturn will set about midnight by the end of April. Orion and Taurus will soon go down with the sunset, but the huge constellation of Leo is rising earlier and earlier, and now crosses our night sky. It looks like a giant sickle, and is now the home of the second-brightest sky object, Jupiter.
Early morning sky viewing is best of all. The atmosphere is often clearer then, and there is much less light pollution from earth. Im always amazed at how huge and bright everything looks in the early morning sky. For those who are into early rising, there are special treats this month.
Looking east, about 30 degrees above the horizon, on the night/morning of April 21/22, we can see the Lyrid meteor shower. Observation can start at 10:30 p.m., but the rate improves through the early morning hours, as Lyra rises. There might be 20 meteors/hour. The meteors center in the constellation of Lyra, with its bright blue star, Vega. After 2 a.m. (local time) the great Summer Triangle will have cleared the horizon, and we can watch it rise, soon to grace our summer skies. Vega is the top star in that triangle.
After midnight on April 19, check close to the eastern horizon to view Comet Linear. With your binoculars, find the lower left star in the great Square of Pegasus, and from there sweep to the right. The closer to the equator, the better is the viewing.
April is a very special month for sky viewing. We can watch it every night, and get an exciting picture of the unfolding drama of the planets.