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Astronomy: Observing Highlights for April - Explore

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Astronomy: Observing Highlights for April

April 2012 Mars Chumack

Planet observing is the activity of the month. Jupiter and Venus are still bright in the west after sunset, while Mars is noticeable as the reddish point of light in the southeast and yellowish Saturn is rising in the east.

Concentrate on Jupiter to start with because it will be the first to leave the scene. The King of Planets looks great through a telescope, allowing you to spot the dark belts and light zones along with the four large Galilean satellites. Just above Jupiter is Venus, shining so brightly it often gets mistaken for an airplane. Through a telescope or binoculars you can spot the phase of Venus, which is shrinking throughout the month of April even while its overall size increases as it gets nearer to us. On the first few days of the month, watch as Venus nears and then appears to pass through the stars of the Pleiades cluster. Use binoculars for the best view.

Mars will be found not far from the bright star Regulus all month, while Saturn hovers near Spica in Virgo. Watch the moon as it hangs near Mars on April 3 and then shifts toward Saturn, reaching Spica and the Ringed Planet on April 6, the date of full moon.

April is host to one moderate meteor shower, the Lyrids, which occurs between April 16 and 25 with the peak of activity slated for the weekend of the 21st/22nd. Lyrid meteors appear to come from the constellation Lyra, which rises in the northeast midevening. Up to 20 meteors an hour is possible.

Astronomy Day is celebrated April 28. Host your own star party for friends, family members, or neighborhood kids and show them around the sky. Point out the planets mentioned above (although by late month Jupiter will be hard to catch in the sunset’s glow) and point a telescope or binoculars at the moon to see the mountains and craters. Once it gets darker, trace out some of the constellations on view, such as Gemini and Leo. If you need help yourself, try one of the many great apps that identify objects in the sky just by holding your phone up in the direction you are looking. Star Walk, The Night Sky, and Pocket Universe are a few good options.

As the sun continues to enter its active phase, keep updated on when a coronal mass ejection has hurtled plasma toward Earth, giving us another chance to see the northern lights. The University of Alaska provides an aurora forecast, or follow me on Twitter (@Astronomommy) for breaking sky information. Good luck, and clear skies!

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt/Image: John Chumack

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