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The month of April brings good news and bad news for stargazers in the northern hemisphere.  The good news is that our weather is getting warmer.  The bad news is that our nights are getting shorter.  Nevertheless, there’s still plenty to see in the night skies of April.  Here are the highlights.

Planets

April 3rd will be your last chance to use the Moon to locate Uranus.  The planet will be at the lower right side of a thin waxing crescent Moon during the evening hours.  You’ll need binoculars or a small telescope to observe the planet.

On April 15 there will be four planets visible in the morning sky: Jupiter, Venus, Mars, and Saturn.  Look for them in the southeast horizon along the same path followed by the Sun.

Finally, on the morning of April 29, Mercury (the most elusive planet) will be at its greatest distance from the Sun making it much easier to observe.  Look for it in the horizon just before Sunrise.

Moon

There will be two new Moons this month.  The first on April 1st and the second on April 30.  The full Moon will be on April 16.  The Moon will be at apogee (i.e., farthest from the Earth) on April 7.  At that time, the Moon will be roughly 251,283 miles away from us.  The Moon will be at perigee (i.e., nearest to Earth) on April 19 when its distance from our planet will be 226,863 miles.

For those in the southern hemisphere, a partial solar eclipse will occur on April 30.

Stars

The most notable stars this month are Arcturus and Spica.  Locating these stars is fairly simple.  First find the Big Dipper which is high in the northern sky.  Follow the curve of its handle as you “arch to Arcturus.”  This is the fourth brightest star observable from Earth, having a magnitude of -0.1.  It has about the same mass as the Sun and is located just 37 light years from our solar system.  It’s the brightest star in the constellation Boötes.

Continue to follow the same path as you “spike to Spica” in the constellation Virgo.  Spica is a magnitude 1 binary (i.e., double) star located 250 light years from Earth.  The star’s brightness increases and decreases every four days.  It’s extremely volatile and, along with Betelgeuse in the Orion constellation, is a prime candidate for the next supernova.  Thankfully, Earth is outside the 50-light-year danger zone if such an event occurred.

Constellations and Galaxies

At least three remarkable constellations will be high in the sky this month.  The first is Leo, located between Virgo and Cancer.  This constellation has two pairs of spiral galaxies that can be seen through binoculars or a telescope.  The first pair is M65 and M66 located near Leo’s back leg.  The other pair, M95 and M96, are found around the lion’s chest or stomach.  The constellation is also home to the star Regulus, one of the brightest in the sky, and a dwarf star named Wolf 359 which is the third closest to us at a distance of just 7.8 light years.

Next is Coma Berenices, a small but bright constellation that represents the hair of the Egyptian Queen Berenice.  The main attractions in this constellation are the “Coma Star Cluster” comprised of at least 50 stars that are about 285 light years from us and the “Coma Cluster” that has the massive true diameter of 20 million light years.  You can also find M64, the “Black Eye Galaxy”, inside Coma Berenices.

Lastly, Hercules, the fifth largest constellation, will be high overhead all month.  Look for the M13 globular cluster located around the right side of Hercules’ torso.  This is a loose, irregular cluster of stars approximately 500 million light years away.  It’s true diameter is nearly 6 million light years across.

Meteor Shower

The Lyrid meteor shower will be active this month from April 16 -25.  Its peak will be from April 22 to April 23 (though some sources say April 21 to 22).  Most meteors will come from the area of the sky between Vega and Hercules.  As with all meteor showers, the Lyrids are best observed after midnight and before dawn.  Although the Lyrid meteor shower is not prolific (it averages 10 to 15 meteors per hour), it does produce some of the brightest and faster streaks across the sky.  The meteors are associated with Comet Thatcher and the shower is the oldest one ever recorded, being documented by Chinese astronomers in 687 BC.