Exploring Our Night Sky - April 2020

Image courtesy of Steven Marshall Photography www.smarshall.photography

Even if you’re staying at home in a town, there is much happening in the night sky this month as an already bright Venus becomes its most brilliant and we have our brightest Full Moon of the year. We have the Lyrid meteor shower peaking on 22 April, giving us a sky filled with shooting stars that will not be drowned out by light from the Moon. As the winter constellations disappear beyond the western horizon, the constellations of Leo and Virgo dominate the springtime sky.

The Constellations

If you look directly above your head this month, you’ll see the Plough, which is an asterism that is familiar to a lot of people. This makes it an excellent starting point from which to navigate your way around the southern night sky.

Image Credit: Till Credner

If you trace a line from the Plough down to the horizon, at about half-way, you will find Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo (The Lion). Regulus is at the bottom of a backwards question-mark which is made up of 6 stars and called The Sickle. This asterism is the back of The Lion’s head and the six stars in it are Epsilon Leonis, Mu Leonis, Zeta Leonis, Gamma Leonis, Eta Leonis, and Alpha Leonis. Follow a line left and slightly up from Regulus and you’ll come to Denebola. This forms the bright tip of The Lion’s tail and its name comes from the Arabic for lion’s tail.

Up from and to the right of Regulus, you will find Castor and Pollux, the two stars which mark the heads of the Twins, Gemini. The bodies of the Twins are the two lines of stars which extend towards Orion (The Hunter), which will be low on the horizon out to the west and will be best found by identifying Betelgeuse, the bright red star which forms the Hunter’s left shoulder at the top of the constellation.

Below and to the left of Leo is the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin), with its brightest star Spica sitting down towards the horizon. In some cultures, Virgo is the "Wheat-Bearing Maiden" or the "Daughter of the Harvest” and is depicted holding several spears of wheat in each hand and Spica is one of the ears of grain hanging from her left hand. If you can’t find Spica, try going back up to the Plough and follow the curve of its handle round, through the very bright star, Arcturus and then down to Spica, which will be way down low in the sky.

If you are at a location with little or no light pollution, you may be able to pick out Hydra (The Water Snake), which wriggles along the southern horizon and is the largest constellation in the night sky. Most of its stars are faint, but Alphard, its brightest star, is quite easy to find if you look below and to the right of Leo’s brightest star, Regulus (See above). Alphard is from the Arabic for "the solitary one" as there are no other bright stars near it. You might also be able to pick out the head of the Water Snake. It is an almost square set of four stars about halfway between Regulus and Procyon, the brightest star in Canis Minor, which sits below Castor and Pollux.

The Moon

At the start of the month, we’ll have a half Moon as it is at its first quarter and week later, on 8 April we’ll see the brightest of the four supermoons (full Moons within 367,607 km of Earth) that occur in 2020. This one will be 357,029 km away and will be about 30% brighter than the faintest full Moon. This month’s full Moon is often called the Pink Moon because of the from the pink flowers – phlox – that bloom in early spring in North America. So, if it’s a clear night on 8 April, we will see a Pink Supermoon.

This month’s full Moon is also known as the Egg Moon or the Paschal Moon because it is used to calculate the date for Easter. For those you who wonder why Easter does not occur on the same date each year, the rule is that Easter falls on the Sunday next following the Saturday that falls on or after the Full Moon next following the Vernal/Spring Equinox. This means that Easter can occur on any date from March 22 through to April 23. As this year’s Equinox was on March 20 and the next Full Moon on April 8, Easter Sunday falls on 12 April.

The last quarter Moon (a half moon) is on 14 April and then, on the following morning of 15 April, you’ll see Jupiter sitting just above and to the right of a crescent Moon with Saturn to its upper left. Also, if you’re up early on the morning of 15 April, you’ll see Mars above the crescent Moon.

There is a new Moon (no moon) on 23 April and if it’s clear on 24 April, look low in the south-west at about half an hour after sunset and you might spot a very thin crescent Moon. It’ll be easier to see on 25 April when it will be between the Pleiades (right) and Aldebaran (left), with Venus above it. On 26 April, the crescent Moon will be next to Venus and will be well worth a photo.

The Planets

You will have noticed Venus getting higher and higher and brighter and brighter in recent weeks and this month it will reach its maximum brightness. This will occur on 28 April when Venus will stay above the horizon until about 0:30 am. If you look through a small telescope or binoculars and watch it from day to day, you should be able to see its shape changing from a half circle to a crescent. This is because Venus will be moving more and more in line with the Sun. On 3 April, it passes in front of the Pleaides (the Seven Sisters) star cluster, so if you look at it through a small telescope or binoculars you will see its crescent shape surrounded by a swarm of stars.

This month, Mercury Uranus and Neptune will no longer be visible as they are lying too close to the Sun. However, the other 3 planets of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars are all visible in the morning as they rise before the Sun. To see them look slightly above the south eastern horizon from just before 5 am to see Jupiter appear first. It will be followed by Saturn 15 minutes later and Mars 10 minutes after that. As the month passes you should notice Mars moving further and further to the left and becoming brighter and brighter each day. At the end of the month it will be brighter than Saturn.

Meteor Showers

After several months without any major meteor showers, we now have the Lyrid meteor shower this month. It starts on 16 April and reaches its peak on 22 April, when its dust particles that originate from the comet Thatcher hit our atmosphere are expected to produce around 15-20 meteors per hour. They should put on a good show as the Moon will be close to being a new moon, so it will not create any light to interfere with the light from the bright fireballs as they streak across the sky. These fireballs will appear to emanate from the constellation of Lyra (The Lyre) at a point near Vega, the constellation’s brightest star and the fifth brightest star in the night sky. You will find Vega over in the north-eastern night sky from 10pm, although you don’t need to look there to see meteors as they’ll appear across the whole night sky.

This monthly summary first appeared on https://www.rockpoolhouse.co.uk/april-stargazing.html.

It was written by Steven Marshall, owner of Steven Marshall Photography and Rockpool House Holiday Apartment. He offers landscape and night photography tuition to visitors on the Peninsulas and has various photographic prints, calendars, cards and other merchandise for sale at his studio at Rockpool House. He also enjoys taking his guests at Rockpool House on a tour of the night sky.

If you’d like to share what you love about the area on our website, please feel free to get in touch by email at web@westhighlandpeninsulas.com.

Posted on 1st April 2020, by Steven Marshall.

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