Eyes On The Sky – This Month In Astronomy

March 29, 2011 at 7:21 am | Posted in Regular Feature, Science News | 4 Comments
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The night sky has fascinated humanity since the dawn of time.  To our knowledge every culture throughout history has created stories based upon the stars.  From the myths of antiquity to modern science fiction, our imaginations compel us to create stories about what we see in the night sky. As our planet spins through space and time, our seasons offer us a glimpse of our galaxy from varying perspectives.  It also rotates the mythical characters of the constellations on and off the stage.

Set course for Rigel 7 Number 1

When April comes around the phrase that comes to mind is “Shift Change”; time for one ancient hero to rest, and another to step into the spotlight.  

The constellation Orion dominates the winter sky in the Northern hemisphere.   The legendary hunter patrols our night sky from November to March accompanied by his faithful dog, Canis Major.  The dog’s heart is marked by the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, a stunning star visible at the heels of his master, twinkling on the Southern horizon with an apparent magnitude of -1.46.

But April means spring, and Orion’s shift is nearly complete.  Most evenings find him and his canine companion in the Western Sky after sunset, heading toward a well-earned rest.  It’s time for Orion’s counterpart, Hercules, to take the stage and the next watch over the night sky.

The first stars of Hercules begin their ascent in mid-March, and by the end of April, most of the recognizable features of the constellation are visible on the Eastern horizon.  Four relatively bright stars roughly in the shape of a square form his torso, or what is commonly known as the Keystone. Hercules’ arms and legs extend from this central square.  By mid-summer Hercules will be directly overhead.

Orion in the West. Hercules in the East. Watch for the hand-off between these two legends as the month of April unfolds.

Planets

To catch the planetary show this month, you have to be an early riser. Venus has been the morning star for several months now, and continues to dominate the pre-dawn sky in the South-East. On April 1st, between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. local time, watch for Venus to be joined by the smallest sliver of a waning crescent moon.

Another spectacular show happens in the dawn sky on April 29-30. Jupiter, hugging the low Eastern horizon, will be easily visible as a very bright ‘star’. The light should be steady and strong. A little higher and to its right will be Mars, much fainter and slightly red in hue. Further to the right will be the unmistakable brilliance of Venus outshining any other object in the sky. Nestled directly between Mars and Venus will be Mercury (visible through binoculars). What is tremendous exciting about this grouping is the opportunity to compare the brightest planets in our sky – Venus and Jupiter. The two are often mistaken for one another when seen independently, and are seldom close enough in proximity as to offer us a side-by-side comparison of their brilliance and beauty.

So set your alarm, cradle your coffee, and head out into the pre-dawn light on April 29th. It will be more than worth the price of admission.

by Myri Antilles

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