The Night Sky This Month: April 2015

Night Sky 3
Image Credit: Nathan Anderson

This month you should prepare for April showers, in this case referring to The Lyrids (April 16th to the 25th) meteor shower because their radiant point-of-origin is the constellation Lyra, not too far from its brightest star Vega. Keep your view towards the east as you prepare to enjoy this annual event.

You should be able to catch the best part of the show on the 22nd or 23rd, when you can expect about 20 per hour, and viewing should be good since we’ll only have a sliver of Moon to worry about. As always, these events can surprise with a sudden influx or even fireballs.

Venus, Jupiter, Saturn,

All the bright planets are out this month. Venus will be positively brilliant, of course, at magnitude -4.0. That will be along with Jupiter at mag. -2.3 in our evening sky. Saturn, too, makes an appearance about midnight in the SE and visible until dawn, hitting a peak of magnitude +0.2 or +0.1.

Mercury, And The Messenger Probe

At magnitude -1.4, Mercury is positively glowing with enthusiasm on April 1st in the morning twilight in the east, or from the 18th to the 30th (and even on into May) in the western evening twilight. And it persists for up to 100 minutes, making this the best appearance for 2015, so take a moment to enjoy seeing this elusive planet for an extended period.

Interesting Fact: The Messenger Probe, in orbit around Mercury, has enough fuel for an additional four orbital corrections to extend its mission to April 30, 2015, the date of its probable impact on Mercury’s surface. The mission when it started was supposed to be comprised about 704 orbits of the planet, but because of the expertise and dedication of the team operating the probe, a mission that launched in 2008, and was supposed to end in 2011, has lasted until 2015. By hoarding its fuel, and making only perfectly executed orbital maneuvers, were now up over 4,000 orbits, with over 275,000 images.

Opposition of Mars

We’re not opposed to Mars as a planet; in fact, we rather like it! However on the 8th of April the Sun and Mars will be diametrically opposed to the Earth. What this means is when Mars is directly overhead in the middle of the night the Sun is directly beneath your feet on the other side of Earth, or conversely, when the Sun is overhead, Mars is directly below your feet. In terms of brightness, because of opposition, we’ll see Mars at magnitude +1.4 almost to the end of the month.

On the 14th of April we’ll be as close as we get on this particular orbit at just under 2/3 of an Astronomical Unit (AU), the distance between Earth and the Sun. With an amateur telescope you should easily see the disk of Mars; you might even be able to make out the white smudge indicating the north pole of Mars which has been tipped towards us since about mid February, when Martian summer began in the northern hemisphere.

Lunar Eclipse

As compensation for missing out on the European Solar Eclipse last month, some of you folks in the western part of North America get a total eclipse of the Moon on the 4th. This is sometimes known as a Blood Moon, literally because of the coloration. In the Eastern portion it will be a partial eclipse, which intersects the horizon as it is setting, but still a worthwhile event to watch. Totality will be relatively short, in the area of four and a half minutes, a new record for the shortest eclipse in about 500 years! Mid-eclipse occurs at 12:00 GMT.

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