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What's in the sky: April

Stargazing column


April brings us warmer weather and spring wildflowers. It is also a month when we say goodbye to the familiar constellations of winter in our evening skies, and can enjoy a late-night peek at the constellations of summer. Orion sinks into the western horizon after dark in April; by the end of the month, it is lost in evening twilight. The bright star Sirius, the star cluster Pleiades, and Taurus the Bull also begin to disappear. The Constellation Leo and its visitor Saturn lie directly south early in the month, and in the southwest at the end of April. In the east, Hercules and Bootes begin to appear. Before sunrise, you'll see the Northern Cross rising in the east.

April will be a very good time to see the planet Saturn in a telescope. Saturn's closest approach to the Earth this year occurred on Feb. 24. However, the ringed planet is almost the same size, through a telescope, as it was in February. It will be due south during the evening, and at its highest point in the sky, which means you'll view it through less distorting atmosphere.

The only other visible planet in the evening sky is Mars. The red planet is located in the constellation Gemini, which is low in the west during April evenings. Look for the bright "twin" stars Castor and Pollux that dominate Gemini; Mars is just below them, and should appear slightly brighter. You may notice that Mars is moving eastward amongst the background stars. If not, make note of its position below the Gemini twins. At the start of the month, it'll be below the two stars. By the end of the month, it will be even with the stars, and to their left.

At the beginning of April, the Moon will be visible before sunrise, low in the southeast. Look for Jupiter, which will be located to the Moon's right (further to the south). New Moon will occur a few days later, on April 5, with Full Moon following on April 20. On the evening of April 8, look for the thin crescent Moon near the star cluster Pleiades, low in the west after dark. On April 12, the Moon will pass very close to the Planet Mars, in the constellation Gemini, low in the west during evening hours. The Moon passes close by Saturn on April 14 and 15.

Last month I mentioned the constellation Leo, the Lion, and the Beehive star cluster in neighboring Cancer. If you look to the left of the Lion, on a dark night, you may notice a hazy area made up of many stars. This is in the constellation Coma Berenices, or Berenices Hair. Named after an Egyptian Queen, the constellation does not have any real bright stars, but a myriad of dimmer stars that make up the hazy appearance. This area of the sky is famous for the number of galaxies that can be seen through a telescope. There are not actually more galaxies located in this direction, but we can see them better. In many other areas of the skies, we're looking into the center or the arms of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Stars and interstellar dust in those directions block the light from distant galaxies.


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