SKY GUIDE: This chart represents the sky as it appears over Maine during April.  The stars are shown as they appear at 10:30 p.m. early in the month, at 9:30 p.m. at mid-month and at 8:30 p.m. at month’s end.  Venus is shown in its mid-month position.  To use the map, hold it vertically and turn it so that the direction you are facing is at the bottom.  Sky chart prepared by George Ayers.

The month of April is named for Aprilis, meaning aperture or opening. That’s exactly what nature is beginning to do in our hemisphere as the great cycles of life continue despite the global pandemic. Assuming you’re not in lockdown, you’re likely to have more time than usual to get out under the beautiful spring skies. In these unusual times, I hope they inspire you to see yourself as part of a much bigger picture.

As it continues to get warmer this month, several interesting highlights present themselves along with a couple of challenges.

Venus continues to amplify its best appearance in eight years as it climbs through the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in Taurus and reaches its greatest brilliancy for the year toward the end of the month. Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars continue their close, majestic celestial dance in the morning sky. The third-largest asteroid, Vesta, is in Taurus now, very close to Venus. Mercury will appear low in the morning sky. The first good meteor shower of the season, the Lyrids, peaks on the 22nd, and we’ll see two comets, PanSTARRS and Atlas, not far from each other near the Big Dipper.

Our brightest planet and the third brightest object in the sky after the sun and the moon, Venus will put on a great show this month as it quickly cruises by both the famous Pleiades and the less famous Hyades star clusters in Taurus the Bull. On Friday, April 3, Venus passes right through the lower part of the Pleiades open star cluster, just 16 arc seconds below Alcyone, the brightest star in the cluster.

With a little imagination, you can see this event forming a cosmic engagement ring, sparkling with a radiance far beyond any mere terrestrial jewels. An even more dramatic celestial ring is the diamond ring effect during the first second and last second of a total eclipse as the sun suddenly reemerges from the moon’s shadow. Unlike a diamond ring, you can never reach out to touch these events physically nor can you ever possess them, but you can photograph them and see and understand them for the enormous celestial beauty they hint at. These and many other incredible events go on around us all the time in the wider and deeper cosmos!

A waxing gibbous moon will be near Venus and the Pleiades on April 1. The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, or Subaru in Japanese, are a fascinating open star cluster consisting of about 500 stars, about 50 of which you can see with binoculars. They are located some 400 light years away. That number is highly significant in astronomy since it was roughly the time that Galileo begin to discover the hitherto unknown secrets of the nearby solar system and universe.

Keep this history in mind when you next look at this wonderful little star cluster with brilliant Venus planted right in it. Amazingly, the photons of light that will be entering your eyes left that relatively nearby cluster about the same time that Galileo pointed the first telescope to the heavens in the 200,000-year history of modern humans. What he discovered simply by looking through his not very powerful telescope was so earth-shaking that he was excommunicated by the church in 1633. It did not reinstate him until 1992! Changing accepted — and limiting —  theories can be very difficult. As Einstein once put it, “Everything has changed except man’s way of thinking.” He was referring to his  discoveries in relativity, a huge leap beyond Galileo and Newton. What will be the next great leap?

The rest of the action is in the morning sky. Mars has now passed both Jupiter and Saturn and is continuing to move eastward into Capricorn. All three are still in their direct or eastward motion. Notice that the distance between Jupiter and Saturn will not change much for the rest of the year, since those planets are far away and don’t move very fast around the sun. Mars is a different story. The red planet is always moving at 15 miles per second around the sun, just a little slower than our own speed of 18.6 miles per second. A year on Mars is 687 earth days, and it reaches opposition every 26 months, next on Oct. 13 this year. Mars and Saturn are the same brightness now, but Jupiter is about 10 times brighter. Mars starts the month just to the left of Saturn. Compare the rust color of Mars to the soft golden glow of Saturn. Try to photograph them to track their progress and better appreciate them.

The asteroid Vesta is tracking through Taurus now, very close to Venus. About 300 miles in diameter, Vesta is our second-largest asteroid behind Ceres. It is potato-shaped since it isn’t quite large enough to spin itself into a round shape naturally. Vesta, along with some other large asteroids, is also the source of most of the meteorites that hit the earth. The Lyrid meteor shower will peak on Wednesday morning, April 22. It will be new moon that day, so the timing for a meteor shower is perfect. Expect up to 20 meteors per hour from a dark sky site in the direction of Lyra, which is part of the summer triangle; it already starts rising around 11 p.m. in early April. Caused by Comet Thatcher, this shower has been observed for the past 2,600 years.

Two comets are visible now with binoculars near the Big Dipper: PanSTARRS will be closest to the sun in early May, when it might even become visible without binoculars. It is in Camelopardalis the Giraffe now. Comet Atlas is nearby in Ursa Major near the M 81 and M82 galaxies. Atlas may also become visible without binoculars soon, so challenge yourself to keep watching and photographing them.

April 1: First quarter moon is at 6:21 a.m.
April 2: Asteroid Juno is at opposition.
April 7: The moon is at perigee, or closest to the earth today at 221,771 miles. The full moon, also called the Grass, Egg, Pink or Fish Moon, is at 10:35 p.m.
April 8: Let’s look forward for once: On this day exactly four years from now in 2024, a total solar eclipse will occur in Maine as the moon’s shadow cuts a narrow path through north central Maine from Bethel to Houlton and Caribou, passing right over Mt. Katahdin. This eclipse will last over three minutes and carve a wider path than the one I was lucky enough to see on August 21, 2017 over Idaho, which lasted a little over 2 minutes. I highly recommend that everyone make the effort to see at least one total solar eclipse in their lifetime. You can experience and learn more about the inner workings of our solar system and universe and the life of stars in those two fleeting minutes than you could in a whole lifetime of studying astronomy and physics.
April 11: Halley’s Comet passed closest to Earth on this day in 1986.
April 12: On this day in 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth. John Glenn became the first American to accomplish that feat on February 20, 1962.
April 14: The last quarter moon is at 6:56 p.m. The moon will be near Jupiter, Saturn and Mars this morning and the next.
April 16: Wilbur Wright was born on this day in 1867. In 1903, on a beach near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, he and his brother Orville launched the first heavier-than-air craft that could fly on its own. It flew for just one minute and covered a distance of fewer than three football fields. Just 65 years later, we flew all the way to the moon, three days and 240,000 miles away.
April 22: The Lyrid meteor shower peaks this morning. The new moon is at 10:26 p.m.
April 23: Max Planck was born on this day in 1858. Along with Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli and many more, he was among the founders of quantum mechanics.
April 25: On this day in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was deployed.
April 27: Venus is at its greatest brilliancy at minus 4.7 magnitude.
April 30: The first quarter moon is at 4:38 p.m.

Bernie Reim lives in Wells and is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.


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