Get outdoors and look into the sky at night this April

There’s always so much to see when you cast your view upwards and this April is no different. Get outdoors this month on a clear night and you’ll see Saturn, the Lyrids and stars aplenty including those that make up the constellation of Virgo…

 

Globe at Night

The final period of observation for GLOBE at Night in 2012 is between the 11th and 20th April.

The GLOBE at Night campaign is an international citizen science effort to count the stars overhead and use the information to lobby for less wasteful lighting of our communities.

Why not get involved – you’ll find all the resources you need on the GLOBE at Night website?

GLOBE at Night Postcard 2012 (.pdf opens in new window)

 

The Phases of the Moon

The night of a Full Moon is awesome and allows you to view our partner in space in all its glory with binoculars or a telescope. However, with so much sunlight bouncing off it back towards us it really does spoil our view of the fainter objects out there. So, for the best view of the stars choose the nights on or around that of the New Moon to skygaze.

Full Moon: 6th April, 19:19
Last Quarter: 13th April, 10:50
New Moon: 21st April, 07:18
First Quarter: 29th April, 09:57

(times above are in Universal Time, UT)

 

The Planets

Solar System

The Solar System

Mercury can be spotted just before sunrise to on the Eastern horizon – set those alarm clocks if you want to glimpse it!

After last month’s conjunction, Venus and Jupiter are getting further apart again. By the end of the month, the apparent motion of Venus against the background stars is slowing (in May it will go into retrograde motion and appear to move East to West). Both planets are visible for around an hour or so as darkness falls. By the end of month though, it’ll be getting more and more difficult to see Jupiter.

Mars is high to the South as the Sun is setting.

Saturn is visible in the constellation of Virgo this month, close to the star Spica. Saturn reaches opposition on 15th April. This means it’s rising in the East as the Sun sets in the West. By dusk it’s in the South East and by around midnight reaching it’s highest point due South. You can discover more about Virgo a little further down this blog post.

The outermost planets Uranus and Neptune aren’t visible to the naked eye.

 

The Hunt for Exo-planets

Think you could spot the tell-tale signs of an exoplanet? Take part in a citizen science project called Planet Hunters and help find new worlds around other stars!

 

Find Your Way Around The Night Sky

Here are some images of what the sky will look like around Midnight on 21st April 2012… the night of a New Moon and the possibility of seeing some of the Lyrids meteor shower (click to embiggen the images)!

Looking East around midnight on 21st April 2012

Looking east from Glasgow at midnight on 21st April 2012

Looking east from Glasgow at midnight on 21st April 2012. Made using Stellarium

Looking South around midnight on 21st April 2012

Looking South from Glasgow at midnight on 21st April 2012

Looking South from Glasgow at midnight on 21st April 2012. Made using Stellarium

Looking West around midnight on 21st April 2012

Looking West from Glasgow at midnight on 21st April 2012.

Looking West from Glasgow at midnight on 21st April 2012. Made using Stellarium

Looking North around midnight on 21st April 2012

Looking North from Glasgow at midnight on 21st April 2012.

Looking North from Glasgow at midnight on 21st April 2012. Made using Stellarium

 

The Lyrids

The Lyrids meteor shower peaks around the 21st and 22nd of April (though there’s a chance of seeing some ‘shooting stars’ a few days either side of this). This year with there being no light pollution from the Moon is a great opportunity to see these bright meteors in the early hours of the morning. These meteors appear to originate from the constellation of Lyra (the Harp) and around midnight you may see up to around 20 or so per hour, though occasionally there may be up to 100 per hour. These meteors are typically sand-sized remnants of debris from Comet Thatcher which swings by our Sun every 415 years or so.

 

Constellations

Let’s take a look at the constellation of Virgo this month. It lies along the ecliptic plane, it’s one of the largest by order of size, and was listed amongst 48 constellations by the Greek philospher Ptolemy in his book, The Almagest, published in the 2nd century and which forms the basis of the 88 modern constellations as we describe them.

Virgo is associated with the Greek goddess of Demeter, the corn goddess. The brightest star in the constellation is Spica (‘the ear of grain’) and this constellation is very much associated with spring and farming prosperity. In the image below, you can see the constellation take shape (click to embiggen and animate).

The constellation of Virgo (animated)

The constellation of Virgo (animated). Made using Stellarium

Spica is often regarded as the first indication of spring as it appears prominantely to the East in the evening sky as we move into the season. This blue giant star is around 260 light years from Earth and is the 15th brightest in the night sky. It even makes an appearance on the flag of Brazil! One way to remember how to find Spica is shown in the image below… use the handle of The Plough (or Big Dipper if you’re North american) to ‘arc’ around to Arcturus, and ‘spring’ on to Spica.

How to find Spica using the Plough and Arcturus

How to find Spica using the Plough and Arcturus. Made using Stellarium

Other cool things to find within the constellation are some other galaxies. Actually, the Virgo Cluster (as it’s known) contains some 1300+ galaxies, including Messier 87 (NGC 4486) and Messier 86 (NGC 4406).

The brightest stars of Virgo and position of Virgo Cluster

The brightest stars of Virgo and position of the Virgo Cluster. Made using Stellarium

M87 is a giant elliptical galaxy (unlike our home – the spiral Milky Way galaxy) that lies some 53 million light-years from Earth and may be some 200 times as massive as the Milky Way making it the largest galazy in the Virgo Cluster. At its centre is a super-massive black hole out of which streams an extraordinary flow of sub-atomic particles at nearly the speed of light as you can see in the colourised Hubble Space Telscope image below. Wow!

M87

Streaming out from the centre of the galaxy M87 like a cosmic searchlight is one of nature's most amazing phenomena, a black-hole-powered jet of electrons and other sub-atomic particles traveling at nearly the speed of light. In this Hubble telescope image, the blue jet contrasts with the yellow glow from the combined light of billions of unseen stars and the yellow, point-like clusters of stars that make up this galaxy. Lying at the centre of M87, the monstrous black hole has swallowed up matter equal to 2 billion times our Sun's mass. Image: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

M86 is racing towards us at 244 kilometers per second! Don’t panic (yet) though – it’s still some 52 million light-years distant from us. M86 is a lenticular galaxy – in-between an elliptical and spiral shape – and contains mostly aging stars and very little new star formation.

M86

Messier object 86 by Hubble Space Telescope. Image: NASA / STSci

 

 

Transit of Venus

One of the highlights of the astronomy calendar this year is fast approaching! Find out more about the transit of Venus and how to view it safely.

 

Thanks for reading – I’d love to hear any comments you have about this post 🙂

About Derek Shirlaw

I'm passionate about science communication, social media, and my home country, Scotland. In particular, I have a real interest in astronomy, digital marketing, and the great outdoors.
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