Mars and Saturn begin April close together. Pictured here is the sudden appearance of bright aurora on Mars during a solar storm. The purple-white color scheme shows the intensity of ultraviolet light given off by aurora on Mars's night side. A simulated image of Mars for the same time and orientation has been added. The Imaging UltraViolet Spectrograph on the MAVEN spacecraft obtained these images September 12 and 13, 2017. Image: NASA/Goddard/University of Colorado.
Planets in Close Conjunction and a Meteor Shower for April Sky Watchers
BY JONATHAN TRUAX, ASTRONOMER, MUSKEGON COMMUNITY COLLEGE'S CARR-FLES PLANETARIUM
This month, enjoy four planets, the moon, the constellations of spring, and warmer nights of observing.
During the month of April, the brilliant planet Venus is visible in the western sky after sunset. Venus is low to the west northwest horizon about 45 minutes after sunset. Look for a bright white “star” much brighter than a typical bright star among the stars of Taurus the Bull. The waxing crescent moon is near Venus the nights of April 17 and 18.
This month, the bright planet Jupiter rises in the southeastern sky about two hours after sunset. Jupiter currently resides among the stars of Scorpius the Scorpion, near the bright star Antares of Scorpius. Using binoculars, try spotting Jupiter’s moons as star-like points of light near Jupiter’s disk. A very nice view will present itself as a waning gibbous moon joins Jupiter on the nights of April 3 and 4.
The orange-red planet Mars and yellow Saturn have a close conjunction as April begins. Currently, Mars and Saturn are located low in the southeast about an hour before sunrise and can be located among the stars of Sagittarius the Archer. Look for two fairly bright “stars” closely paired together. The planets separate as the month passes, but will begin the month only 1.3 degrees apart. The waning gibbous moon is close to the pair of planets the mornings of April 7 and 8.
In the dawn sky of the mornings of April 16 through 25 the Lyrid meteor shower is active with meteor radiating from Lyra the Harp. The shower reaches peak activity on the morning of the 22nd with as many as 20 meteors per hour visible.
The MCC Carr-Fles Planetarium presents free of charge “Incoming!” Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., April 3 through May 3 and May 22 through June 7. Tag along with robot explorers zooming past rocky asteroids and icy comets, all the way to Pluto, and discover how asteroids and comets have collided with our planet throughout history, changing the course of life on Earth. Narrated by George Takei, this 2016 program gives audiences a closer look at the scientific advances that may allow us to find and track cosmic threats before they reach planet Earth. The program will be followed by a brief tour of the current night sky, using the planetarium.
As darkness falls after sunset this month, locate the bright yellow star Capella of Auriga, the charioteer, high in the west. The winter constellation of Taurus can be seen very low in the west, marked by the orange star Aldebaran. Sky watchers can locate Orion low in the southwest by looking for three stars in a row, the famous “belt” of Orion.
Use the “belt” stars pointing downward toward the southeast, to locate the bright blue-white star Sirius the brightest star in the Heavens. A giant ellipse can be formed by connecting the star Aldebaran, to Capella, and then moving east to Pollux and Castor of Gemini, then south to Procyon a bright star east of Orion, down to Sirius of Canis Major, then west to the blue star Rigel of Orion, and then back to Aldebaran. This super constellation or asterism is called the “Winter Ellipse.”
Looking high in the north, nearly overhead, locate the “Big Dipper” formed by the stars of Ursa Major. Low on the northern horizon; find a “W” forming the stars of Cassiopeia. Low in the eastern sky; easily locate Arcturus of Bootes, the brightest star of summer.
The MCC Carr-Fles Planetarium presents free of charge “Incoming!” Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., April 3 through May 3 and May 22 through June 7. Visit the MCC Carr-Fles Planetarium website for upcoming events and call (231) 777-0289 for sky show information. Carr-Fles Planetarium is located on the Muskegon Community College campus in Room 135. Thanks to the generosity of the Reach for the Stars campaign donors, you can now experience the all-new Carr-Fles Planetarium, featuring state-of-the-art digital projection, sound and lighting systems; all-new library of shows; and modern theater seating and domed ceiling.