March 31, 2013

What's Up In April: It's a month for lots of activity in the sky above


The month of April is named after aprilis, which means aperture, or opening. This is what is starting to happen now across the northern hemisphere, as spring will slowly transform our landscape this month.

A similar shift in the sky will be taking place as the familiar winter hexagon will slowly sink into the western horizon and the summer triangle will be rising over the eastern horizon.

The king of the planets, Jupiter, will relinquish its reign as the second-largest planet; Saturn will reach opposition by the end of the month. Other than this changing of the celestial guard, two other interesting events will happen this month. The annual Lyrid meteor shower will peak early Monday, April 22, which is also Earth Day. Then Comet PanSTARRS will get a little higher in our western evening sky even as it slowly gets fainter as it continues to recede from the earth and sun.

I finally saw the comet for the first time on the evening of St. Patrick's Day. I was out on a frozen lake with some friends and we started searching for it soon after sunset. It was a crystal clear, cold and calm evening as the afterglow from the receding sun slowly faded, allowing the gathering dusk of the twilight to reveal the brighter celestial objects one by one, as if they were materializing out of thin air.

Brilliant Jupiter was perched directly above a crescent moon, with the orange giant star named Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull just to the left of the moon. Just to the right, the Pleiades were also gaining in prominence as we plunged deeper into the shadow of our own earth. The subtle and mysterious earthshine reflecting off the unilluminated part of the moon added another element of beauty to a frigid, peaceful evening.

I suddenly spotted the comet low above the tree line across the lake. Its tail was about two degrees long and it had already taken on a subtle orange hue as it descended into the thicker part of our atmosphere. Once I found it in binoculars, we could see it easily for the next 10 minutes without optical aid before our western horizon would swallow it for the evening.

Its name is an acronym for the panoramic survey telescope and rapid response system located in Maui. This is a 1.8 meter $25 million telescope dedicated to searching for potentially hazardous asteroids that may hit the earth. They plan to build three more PanSTARRS telescopes in the near future.

Jupiter is still quite bright in our western evening sky, but it will get progressively lower toward the end of the month. Watch as a thin waxing crescent moon passes by the Pleiades, then the Hyades, and then Jupiter on the consecutive evenings of April 12-14.

Saturn will take over the role of ruling the night toward the end of the month. The ringed planet will reach opposition on April 28. Opposition is always the best time to view a superior planet since it will be closest to the earth and appear at its largest and brightest for the year. On that day Saturn will rise at sunset, reach its highest point at midnight and not set until sunrise. However, it will remain brighter than usual throughout the spring. Its rings will be tilted open about 19 degrees and you will be able to see several of its 62 moons through a telescope. Watch the nearly full moon pass just under the star Spica in Virgo one hour after sunset low in the southeastern sky on the 24th, then watch it pass just below Saturn, 12 degrees farther east, the next evening at the same time.

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