The April Skies

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

— Nelson Mandela

The planet Mercury goes from inferior conjunction with the sun on April 1 to a greatest western elongation on April 29 but all in all, this is a poor apparition for the little planet.

However, this is a good apparition for Venus. This brilliant planet dazzles from low in the western evening twilight. It will be the first object you’ll see in the west after sunset. On the evening of the 17th, look for the two-day old moon to the left of Venus. Then, as the sky darkens, look for the Pleiades star cluster directly above Venus. This is the brightest star cluster in the entire sky.

Mars glows in the constellation Sagittarius in the predawn sky before sunrise. On the morning of April 2, The Red Planet and Saturn will be in conjunction one hour before sunrise in the southeast and on the morning of the 7th, the moon will join them.

The barred spiral galaxy NGC6217 is located 67 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Minor. It is visible in moderate size amateur telescopes on clear spring evenings. Courtesy NASA, Hubble Space Telescope

Enormous Jupiter shines brightly as it rises in the east-southeast during the late evening hours. The Jovian atmosphere is currently loaded with swirling details in the cloud belts and zones, easily studied with just a small amateur telescope on a sturdy mount.

This is also a very good month to study Saturn in an amateur telescope. The ring system is now tipped 25 degrees to our line of sight, giving us spectacular views of the ring structure.

Uranus passes behind our sun in relation to our view from Earth and won’t be visible during April.

It may be possible to glimpse remote Neptune in binoculars near the end of April. It will appear at the crack of dawn very low to the eastern horizon in the constellation Aquarius.

The Lyrids Meteor Shower reaches its peak of activity on the night of April 22nd and morning of the 23rd. Historically this shower produces 20-22 meteors per hour at its peak, some of which form bright dust trails lasting for several seconds. This year, the first quarter moon will set soon after midnight, assuring dark skies for the rest of the night. For the best viewing, watch after midnight from the darkest site available. These meteors are the result of debris from comet Thatcher, which lies in a 415 year around the sun.

M101, the Pinwheel Galaxy, is one of the best known galaxies to amateur astronomers. Lying nearly 23 million light-years away, it is twice the diameter of our Milky Way Galaxy and contains probably over one trillion stars. This galaxy can be glimpsed in small telescopes on clear evenings this month. Courtesy NASA, ESA

Editor’s note: This monthly guide to the stars is from the Marshall Martz Memorial Astronomical Association and The Post-Journal. For further information, contact the M.M.M.A.A. at www.martzobservatory.org.

The magnificent spiral galaxy M81 can easily be spotted as a faint patch of light in binoculars during clear evenings in April. It is located 11.8 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. Courtesy Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

These three large spiral galaxies in the constellation Leo can be viewed with amateur telescopes during clear evenings this month. They are located 30 million light-years from our solar system. Courtesy ESO, INAF-VST, OmegaCAM

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