Astro Mark's Astro Alert: What’s Up Above? April Stargazing
By “Astro” Mark Laurin
George Harrison wrote prophetically, “little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter.” For some, spring announces marks the end of loneliness and the arrival of cherry blossoms, tulips extending green thumbs, and suggestions of a renewal in patches of lawn. Winter is over. Yet, for us folks living in the high country, spring is still a hope, a season far off in the distance. Whether April brings a breath of freshness and hope, or the ceaseless weight of a winter, step outside into the night, and look up. Find renewal, solace, and hope. Watch our planetary alignment continue. See the waxing crescent Moon slides by Venus and Mars. Have you ever seen the Mini Dipper? That’s the little sibling of the Little Dipper, which is the sibling of the Big Dipper? No? Let Venus will show you the way this month. Look up this April and observes these celestial events with your friends and family. Greet the new season and new celestial dome. Yes, Mr. Harrison was correct, “Here comes the Sun.”
Full Moon, April 5th
Throughout history, a full Moon is notable. At times, it was a harbinger of both good and evil. For followers of the Catholic faith, the April full Moon is known as the Paschal Moon. The appearance of this full Moon establishes the date for Easter as the Sunday after the first full Moon of the month. The Farmers Almanac refers to the April full Moon as the Pink Moon. The name is not due to the Moon taken on a pink hue color, however. Rather the name corresponds with the early springtime blooms of wild ground phlox, native to North America. This is because it is one of the first flowers to bloom in spring and has pink pedals. Specifically, for the Lakota, the April full Moon is called, “Moon When the Ducks Come Back.” For the Dakota Native Americans, it is “Moon When the Geese Lay Eggs.” Finally, for the Algonquin, it was the “Breaking Ice Moon.”
Conjunction of Venus and the Pleiades, April 10th – 12th
To begin, an astronomical conjunction is when two or more objects appear close to each other, to share the same spot in the night sky. Basically, the same “east-west” position in the night sky. On this night the planet Venus will reside to the observer’s left (east of the Pleiades. With Venus as your guide, this open star cluster is easy to find. The Pleiades, resides in the constellation of Taurus. The seven brightest are known as the “Seven Sisters” and is somewhat similar in shape to Ursa Major (Big Dipper) and Ursa Minor (Little Dipper) which is why Pleiades is informally referred as the Mini Dipper. You may notice the cluster resembles the logo of the Subaru automotive company. To find the Pleiades, locate the brightest object in the western sky, and look a width of your pinky figure to the right. Can you see the Mini Dipper?
Showcase! Mercury. The entire month of April
Our solar systems inner planets are Venus and Mercury. They are call this since their orbit of the Sun is between the Earth and the Sun. Consequently we observes this planet at dawn and dusk. Never do Venus or Mercury remain visible throughout the night. Mercury never rises high in the night sky; it's only rarely that we can see it at all, because it stays close to the setting or rising sun. April is the expectation for our inner-most-inner planet, Mercury, the Winged Messenger of the Gods. Although Mercury is visible most of the month, the keys to observing Mercury are two. First get outside and look for it soon after sunset. Second, have an unobstructed view of the western horizon. On April 11th, this elusive planet will rise to its highest altitude of 17 degrees above the horizon. That’s quite high in the sky for Mercury. That night, draw a line from Mars to Venus, then extend the line straight down to Mercury.
Lyrid Meteor Shower, Peak Showers April 22nd – 23rd
Can there be a better way to celebrate Earth Day than to have the day showers with gifts from the cosmos? Get ready, because that’s how we’ll honor our home, Mother Earth, Gaia, this Earth Day, April 22nd. Usually the name of the meteor shower indicates the constellation from which the meteors will radiate. For the Lyrids, that’s misleading as the meteors will radiate from the constellation Hercules. In the Mountain Time Zone, the shower will not be visible before around 10:30pm for most night, for it is then that the radiant point rises above your eastern horizon. The showers will then remain throughout the night till dawn breaks. The best estimates indicate the shower will produce its best display at day break, with approximately 20 shooting stars per hour. The Lyrids aren’t the largest meteor swarm, but the moon will be very small that night and offer no light pollution. That’s good.
Conjunction Ahoy! The Moon and Venus, April 22th, and the Moon and Mars, April 25th
The planetary alignment is a multi-month gift that continues to keep giving. This month, the shy waxing crescent Moon will visit the planets of Venus and Mars as it rises and grows in fullness. What makes these conjunctions special is relative youthfulness of the waxing crescent Moon, and it planets proximity to one another in the night sky. For the conjunction for the Moon and Venus, the Moon is 7% full, and 2 days old, appearing just 1°17′ apart. This is quite close – but not close enough to be visible in a single telescope view or binoculars A for the conjunction of the Moon and Mars, the Moon is 29% full, 5 days old, appearing just 3°13′ apart, so they’ll be easy to spot and enjoy with the naked-eye.
Together again, Saturn, and the Moon. April 15th – 16th
For all you early risers, this early morning surprising celestial conjunction is just for you. From your location, look to the southeast around 6am, about an hour before sunrise, as the eastern horizon continues to increase in glow. On this early morning, the Moon and Saturn will have a close visual approach, appearing just 3°11′ apart. Saturn will ride 16 degrees in the sky and the Moon 12 degree. The growing sunlight will obscure most of the background stars so Saturn is easy to see up a finger width to the right (south) of the Moon.
Spring is the gateway to another stargazing season. It signals the departure of the winter constellations. We bid fare ye well to the constellations of Orion, Canis Major, and Canis Minor, Gemini, and Taurus as they literally ride off into the sunset. Yet, we herald a new season of constellations. The arrival of Leo, Virgo, Cancer, Bootes, and Hydra. A new splendor configuration of lines and colored dots. Thus, for those who are actually “living” in this season of spring blossoms and blooms, rest assured, we living in the mountains do envy you. But we do take heart in knowing we’ll catch up quickly once it thaws.
Clear skies to you!