April is officially “Global Astronomy Month,” and to help you celebrate, here’s a guide to the most notable views in the night sky. Here, I’ll show you what’s happening out there this month, and a simple way you can see it all — and more!
Jupiter photo by NASA
April’s astronomy sights begin with Jupiter (apparent magnitude -2.7) well above the eastern horizon at sunset. You should be able to spot it just after sundown. If you view it with a pair of binoculars or a telescope, you should be able to see it’s bands. On a good night, you might spot several of its larger moons. Jupiter will be visible for most of the nights, setting in the west just before dawn.
Mars photo by NASA
Mars will rise around 11:45 pm, followed by Saturn at about 12:30am. The two planets and the red star, Antares, will form a triangle that will move across the night sky throughout April. If you are having trouble distinguishing Mars and Antares, remember (from this post) that Mars is the brighter of the two red objects — and it appears a little higher in the skies than Antares.
Pluto began rising in the mornings on April 2 around 2:30 am, and Neptune will now rise at 5:40 am just before dawn. With apparent magnitudes of +15 and +8, respectively, neither will be visible to the unaided eye. However, a pair of binoculars is all you need to see them.
Mercury will be very close to the western horizon at dusk. As April progresses, Mercury will set a little later each night, so your chances of seeing it will increase each evening. It will be at its highest point above the horizon on the evening of April 18. At this point, Mercury will be at its brightest, with an apparent magnitude of +0.3. For the rest of the month, it will set a little closer to the horizon each night, until it is lost in the glow of the sunset. Don’t look for Mercury before the sun has set. Even at dusk, the sun can be bright enough to cause eye damage.
Lyrid diagram photo by Astro Bob
The Lyrid meteor shower will peak on the night of April 22. The Lyrids usually offer about 10 to 20 shooting stars an hour, but sometimes you might see a fireball or two. The best viewing times will be after 10 pm on Friday. The full moon will make conditions less than ideal, however. The Lyrids will seem to originate from the constellation Lyra. The prominent star in that constellation is Vega. You can find it by looking for the very bright star in the north-northeast.
Orion (the hunter) starts April as the most prominent constellation in the southwestern evening skies. But don’t overlook the Pleiades (M45). M45 will be between Orion and the horizon. It is often called the Seven Sisters because most people can easily make out five to seven of its stars with the unaided eye. If you look at it with binoculars, you will see much more. There are literally hundreds of stars in the Pleiades and lots of bright swirls of nebulae. Astronomy fans (present company included) are notorious for their obsession with the nebulae surrounding both Orion and the Pleiades. When you see them, you’ll know why. They are absolutely mesmerizing.
Arcturus rises just after sunset in the northeast. It’s a bright double star that happens to be the brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere. (Sirius, Canopus, and Alpha Centauri are all brighter than Arcturus. However, those three are technically in the southern celestial hemisphere, though we can still see them in the north.) Arcturus is also relatively close to us — only 37 light years away.
Here’s a cool little tidbit: The light of Arcturus was used to open the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. At that time, measurements put Arcturus 40 light years away. Chicago had also hosted the 1893 World’s Fair (40 years prior), so it seemed fitting to open the 1933 World’s Fair with starlight that had started its journey to Earth during the previous event. This was accomplished by using several telescopes to collect the light of Arcturus, focus it on solar cells, and then use it to switch on the current for the floodlights of the fair.
Now you might be thinking: “I’m not going to bother looking for most of these, because I don’t have a telescope, and I can’t afford one either.” Well, I’m happy to tell you: You don’t need one!
An amazing, and inexpensive, way to see ALL of these celestial bodies and events mentioned is with a pair of binoculars. A really good one is the Celestron 71198 Cometron 7×50 Binoculars for only $35, and I can seriously see all the way to Andromeda galaxy (M31) with these, which is wicked cool! That’s 2.5 million light years away! Not to mention I can pick out crazy details of many, many other objects. It’s also wide enough to get a clear shot of a shooting star from the Lyrid meteor shower. Ultimately, however, your viewing will depend on dark sky conditions (lack of light pollution).
As an option, and for those who want to get really serious with their star gazing and take some super amazing shots, an astronomy friend of mine says he uses a Canon T5 DSLR mounted on his Celestron telescope. Personally, the binos are more than enough for me — right now anyway.
In addition to the binoculars, my favorite book NightWatch (popularly considered the “night sky bible”) is also highly recommended to fully enjoy all that Global Astronomy Month has to offer. Warning: This book is addicting.
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