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Apr 01

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – April, 2018

The April Sky Has Much to Offer

Sky watchers in April should enjoy a month that begins with the appearance of one of the brightest objects in the sky, the planet Venus. Considering the clear weather we’ve been having recently (rather unusual for March) many readers have probably already spotted Earth’s sister planet low in the west after sunset. April will see Venus become higher in the sky and set a full hour later, making it even easier to see. On the seventeenth the goddess of love is joined by a thin crescent Moon, a spectacular sight indeed.

As the month begins, Jupiter shines brilliantly in the southwest before sunrise and is also visible at night, rising three hours after sunset. The time shortens to half an hour after sunset by April 30 and around mid-month Jupiter starts rising before Venus sets. Look each evening to find out the first date you can see both bright planets at the same time.

Mars and Saturn put on quite a show early in April, shining just above the Teapot in Sagittarius. Starting on April 1, if you look about an hour before sunrise on consecutive days, you will easily see how their positions change relative to one another. They will be joined by an almost-last-quarter Moon on the seventh.

Although the spectacular constellations of winter such as Orion, Gemini, and Taurus are still visible in the west, they are slowly fading and dropping out of view. They are replaced by Leo, the lion, high in the southern sky as April progresses. If you turn around, face north and look almost straight up, you will see Ursa Major, aka the Big Dipper, almost directly opposite from Leo with respect to the zenith. Many people don’t think of the Bear and the Lion as being so closely related to each other in the sky, but it is an interesting combination at this time of year.

Like Orion the Hunter, Leo is recognizable because it clearly resembles its namesake, a lion. It’s backward question mark head faces west, followed by a triangle of stars forming its hindquarters and tail. The bottom of the question mark is the bright star Regulus. The sixteenth century astronomer Copernicus gave the star its name which means “little king” and reflects the ancient belief that this was one of the royal stars which ruled the heavens. Many scholars believe that the sphinx of Egypt, a figure with a human face and the body of a lion, associated the royal power of the Egyptian kings with the impressive celestial symbolism of Leo the Lion.

Luckily, in April you don’t have to be royalty to appreciate what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:

April 1: Comet Hale-Bopp nearest Sun – 1997
April 9: NASA selects original seven Mercury astronauts – 1959
April 12: Yuri Gagarin becomes first human in space – 1961
April 12: Columbia becomes first space shuttle to be launched – 1981
April 17: Apollo 13 returns to Earth – 1970
April 20: Shapley-Curtis debate on the distance and nature of spiral nebulae – 1920
April 25: Hubble Space Telescope is deployed – 1990
April 28: Eugene Shoemaker is born – 1928