April night sky boasts bright emerging star, Mercury and a meteor shower
"The rose-tinted star Arcturus is emerging, several planets are out and, in the month’s final week, we’re treated to the Lyrid meteor shower
As the nights gradually turn milder, April is a great month to look toward the sky. This month we’ve already enjoyed the full “pink moon,” but more delights lie ahead. The bright star Arcturus is emerging, several planets are out and, in the month’s final week, we’re treated to the Lyrid meteor shower.
As we transition from winter to spring, we bid farewell to the bright winter stars and welcome a single beacon that is now rising in the east.
Rose-tinted Arcturus has always been my celestial sign of spring. It is the third-brightest star in the entire sky, and brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere.
Arcturus’s return brings warmer days and a fundamental change in what we view in the sky. Where the region around Orion is dominated by star clusters and bright glowing nebulae, Arcturus marks an area of the sky where we look out of the plane of the Milky Way toward the depths of intergalactic space. For sports fans it may be baseball season, but for amateur astronomers, it’s galaxy season!
Throughout April, the early evening sky is the domain of bright Venus, which continues to climb higher above the western horizon each passing night.
Venus generally appears in the evening sky five times in an eight-year cycle, and the current apparition is the best for Northern Hemisphere viewers for this series. Venus was revered by the ancient Mayans, and many of their ceremonial centers were built to mark the movements of the dazzling planet. This week, once the sky darkens, look for the Pleiades star cluster near the planet’s bright glow. The view through binoculars is worth waiting up for.
Mercury reached its greatest elongation or its point farthest from the sun on Tuesday (April 11). While climbing higher, the planet has begun to fade, and you may have trouble spotting the planet after the 15th. It will be about 10 degrees, the width of your fist held at arm’s length, above the horizon about half an hour after sunset for the next several nights before dropping back toward the sun. You may want to use binoculars to track the elusive planet down.
Ruddy Mars keeps pace with the advancing sun as it moves through the stars of Gemini, the Twins. The Red Planet is moving eastward through the constellation at a pretty fast pace, and by the end of the month it will form a nice triangle with the bright stars Castor and Pollux.
Jupiter is in conjunction with the sun Tuesday and is not visible this month.
You might be able to catch a glimpse of Saturn, which will be low in the southeastern sky by the end of the month, but it will be competing with the gathering morning twilight. Look for the crescent moon just below Saturn before sunrise on the 16th.
Set your calendars for the Lyrid meteor shower on April 23
The bright light of the moon, which was full last week, shouldn’t interfere with the annual Lyrid meteor shower, which peaks on the morning of the 23rd. The radiant point in the sky for this shower, where the meteors appear to emanate from, is in the diminutive constellation of Lyra, the Harp, near the bright star Vega. From a dark location, an observer should see 15 to 20 meteors per hour. As with most meteor showers, this one is produced by the dust sputtered off a comet, and is best seen in the early morning hours when the Earth runs headlong into the meteoroid stream.
The full pink moon was April 6
This month’s full moon, known as the “pink moon,” occurred April 6 at 12:34 a.m. Eastern time. It began the month near the bright star Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo, the Lion.
Looking ahead, the slender waxing crescent moon returns to the evening sky on the 21st, joining the bright glow of Venus on the 22nd and 23rd before nearing the fainter red glimmer of Mars on the 24th.
Geoff Chester is an astronomer who has worked at the U.S. Naval Observatory since 1997."