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Astro Bob: Stellar sights for spring nights

A calendar of upcoming night-sky events for the month of April

Mercury Venus and Orion
As Orion sinks westward, Venus climbs ever higher and Mercury makes a nice appearance during the first week of April. Venus is bright and easy to spot. Look for Mercury low in the west-northwest sky. I like to use binoculars to spot it. Once I know exactly where to look, then I can see it more easily with just the naked eye.
Contributed / Stellarium

Night-sky watchers welcome the return of warmer weather this month. Hopefully, frozen fingers will soon fade into memory. Like March, April is a excellent time to watch for the northern lights as they tend to occur more frequently in the spring and fall.

Leo and Arcturus
Leo the lion hosts the waxing gibbous moon on April 1. Ahead of the lion you'll see the little constellation of Canis Minor the Small Dog; behind and above Leo are the hunting dogs or Canes Venatici. They're located just below the handle of the Big Dipper. Farther off to the east look for the bright star Arcturus.
Contributed / Stellarium

Orion tips over in the west, making a final bow before leaving the stage. Be generous with your applause — the hunter won't return until dawn in August. Leo the lion rules the southern sky with his sickle-shaped head and triangle tail, while off to the east you'll spot the tangerine twinkle of brilliant Arcturus, the third brightest nighttime star.

If you’re up past 10:30 p.m. local time, look low in the northeast and you’ll spot Vega, the brightest star of summer. It makes its initial appearance every April. In the western sky Venus gleams like a shiny sapphire well into the night, setting after 11:30 p.m. at mid-month.

Highlights this month include the return of Mercury at dusk, Venus and the Pleiades, and the peak of the annual Lyrid meteor shower, our first significant shower since January.

Events:

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April 1 — Waxing gibbous moon passes 6 degree above Leo’s brightest star, Regulus.

April 5 — Full Pink Moon. Named for moss pink, an eastern U.S. spring flower also called creeping phlox.

April 5-15 — Best time to see Mercury, visible low in the evening sky around 45 minutes after sunset. Hold your fist at arm’s length against the sky and look about two fists to the lower right of much-brighter Venus.

Venus and Pleiades
Venus shines below the Pleiades on April 10 and 11. Look west when during late twilight to see the pretty pair.
Contributed / Stellarium

April 9-12 — Venus passes just below and then left of the Pleiades star cluster, better known as the Seven Sisters. You'll see them easily with the naked-eye, but binoculars will give a stunning view. Face west and watch between 90 minutes and 2 hours after sundown.

April 10 (early a.m.) — Waning gibbous moon passes just 1 degree to the east (left) of Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius early this morning

April 13 — Last quarter moon

April 16 (early a.m.) — Waning crescent moon slides about 5 degrees below Saturn low in the southeastern sky during morning twilight.

Annular solar eclipse Kevin Baird OK May 2012.jpg
During an annular eclipse, like this one in May 2012, the moon has a smaller apparent size because it's located near the far end of its orbit around Earth. It doesn't completely cover the sun at peak eclipse, leaving a 'ring of fire' or annulus of sunlight.
Kevin Baird / Contributed

April 20 — New moon. Annular-total solar eclipse visible from parts of Australia and Indonesia. If you haven't made travel plans, you can still watch the eclipse live online at timeanddate.com starting at 8:30 p.m. CDT on April 19.

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Lyrid meteor shower
The annual Lyrid meteor shower peaks on the mornings of April 22 and 23 under excellent, moonless conditions. Up to 15 meteors per hour are visible from a dark sky. The meteors will appear to shoot from the direction of Lyra the harp. To watch, go out after 11 p.m. (1 till dawn is best).
Contributed / Stellarium with additions by Bob King

April 21, 22 — Peak of the annual Lyrid meteor shower. With no moon to wash out the sky, conditions are ideal. Shower meteors originate from Comet Thatcher with about 15 meteors visible per hour coming from the direction of the bright star Vega. Watch late on April 21 into the early morning hours of April 22 and again from April 22 into the wee hours of April 23. Face your reclining chair east or southeast, lay back and enjoy.

April 22, 23 — Slender crescent moon passes below Venus on April 22 and then above the planet on the April 23.

April 1 northern sky
Meanwhile in the northern sky the Big Dipper stands high. A line drawn through the two end stars in the bowl — nicknamed the Pointers — points to Polaris, the North Star.
Contributed / Stellarium with additions by Bob King

April 25 — Thick crescent moon in conjunction with Mars. Both appear directly below Gemini’s two brightest stars, Pollux (left) and Castor.

April 27 — First quarter moon.

April 29 — Waxing gibbous moon passes 5 degrees to the upper left of Leo’s brightest star, Regulus.

"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer and retired photographer for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at nightsky55@gmail.com.
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