Monday, April 5, 2010

April Skies: What's Up This Month?

Mercury (right) is making its best evening appearance of the year, don't miss it!

Spring truly arrives in April, which means clearer skies, warmer nights, and, unfortunately, longer days. April is the month to get a last look at the winter constellations. We lose about a minute of daylight a day. By the time true dark arrives, the winter constellations will be riding low in the Western sky. By the end of the month, they'll be lost to twilight. So hurry out and see them while you can.

April sees the spring constellations take their place in the early evening sky. By the time darkness falls, Leo the lion is high and due South while Ursa Major/The Big Dipper is climbing high in the North. April is the first month where one can also use the spring star trail to find his or her way around the sky. Starting at the Big Dipper, follow the arc of the handle to Arcturus (Bootes the herdsman), speed on to Spica (Virgo the virgin), continue the curve to Corvus (the crow), and, if really ambitious, conclude in Crater (the cup). By the time dawn arrives, the Summer Triangle (Lyra's Vega, Aquila's Altair, and Cygnus's Deneb) is high in the Eastern sky,. Hercules, is overhead, and Scorpius is due South.

On the planet front, April is an excellent time for observing planets. All of the Classical planets will be putting on great shows this month. Be sure to catch Mercury at the start of the month, as it is making one of its best appearances of the year. How good? At its peak distance from the Sun, it sets nearly two hours after our nearest star. Next stop: Venus, which climbs higher in the sky every night as the month goes on. Mars, fourth from the Sun, is still almost an all night object, still located in Cancer. the king of the Planets, Jupiter, is also rapidly making its climb into the sky, but this time at dawn. Saturn, last planet to the ancients, is located in Virgo and is a most of the night object as well.

Mercury makes its best dusk appearance of the year, Venus and Jupiter are rapidly climbing, and Mars and Saturn are up most of the night.

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