Astronomy News

by Leslie F. Brown, Ph.D.

What's up in our April night skies? April 2021

The month of April will provide us with several celestial delights to view as temperatures warm and we enjoy the arrival of spring in earnest. This month we will be treated to a full supermoon on the evening of April 27. A supermoon is the popular name given to the full moon that occurs when the distance between the Moon and Earth is smallest. This smallest distance between the Earth and the Moon is known as perigee and so astronomers call this a perigee full Moon. Compared to your average full moon, this super full moon will appear about 7% larger and some 16% brighter than usual. The April full moon, as you may have heard, is often referred to as the full Pink or Wild Phlox moon; it was so named as this is the time of year when the first of these early blooming flowers are making their appearance.

Trying to view the stars, meteor showers or most anything in heavens at times of, or close to, the full moon is difficult as the Moon's light get scattered around the sky and washes out most fainter objects. On the other hand, a great time for star and constellation viewing is on, or near, the night of the new Moon. The new Moon rises with the Sun and is up all day in the sky with the Sun. Consequently by dusk, the Sun and Moon are setting and that leaves the whole night moonless and much darker. This is the best time of the month to observe faint celestial objects such as meteors, or galaxies and star clusters. This month the new Moon occurs on April 12, so around that time, get out your binoculars and scan the heavens looking for some of these faint, fuzzy objects.

Meteor Showers
For some, the highlight of our April skies will be the Lyrid Meteor Shower. The Lyrids get their name from the constellation where the light trails left by these meteors appear to originate - the constellation of Lyra. The name of the progenitor comet that is the source of these bits of rock and dust that burn up in our atmosphere and create this meteor shower is Comet Thatcher (aka C/1861 G1). On average, the Lyrids don't produce numerous shooting stars, just around 20 meteors per hour at the peak. The peak this year will occur in the wee morning hours of April 22rd. If you can't observe on the date of the peak, you can still catch a view of some Lyrids a couple of days before the peak date until the show ends about two or three days after the peak.

Unfortunately this year, it will be hard to observe many of the fainter meteor trials left by the shed bits of Comet Thatcher as this shower occurs close in time to the approaching full Moon. The waxing gibbous Moon that will dominate our skies on the 22nd will wash out all but the brightest of the Lyrids this year. Your best shot at catching the April Lyrids is to observe after midnight to 4 A.M. on the 22rd from a dark sky location. Look all around the sky for the Lyrid star trails, and with luck, you will catch a few of the bright ones streaking across the sky.

Planets
For those of you who want to scan the sky for planets, April heralds a growing number of planets that can be seen in the early evening and two spectacular Jovian planets in the early morning. Toward the beginning of the month, Mars is up and still gracing the constellation of Taurus. You can catch it if you look to the WSW after sunset but before 10 p.m. when it gets very low in the sky. The young crescent Moon will appear just below Mars on April 16th - a lovely scene - then the Moon moves on to occult (i.e., pass in front of) Mars on April 17th at 4 P.M. By 8P.M. the crescent Moon will have moved some 5 degrees away from the Moon. And again the pair will form a lovely grouping in your evening sky.

By April's end, you will be able, with diligence, observe Venus as an evening planet. When either Venus or Mercury appear in our skies just after twilight and into the early evening they get referred to as “evening stars”. Earth's twin is slowly appearing to move away from the Sun on the sky and with each passing day will become easier to spot after sunset. At this time, Mercury too appears as an evening star and its angular distance from the Sun is even greater than that of Venus. Sadly, Mercury is faint as it is a very small planetary body, so it will be harder to see. To find it, scan your WNW horizon between 7:30 and 8:15p.m. On the 29th or the 30th. If you miss Mercury in April, May will provide you with an even better view of this elusive, inner planet. Venus too will become much easier to spot in May. Flowers and planets - a fitting start to spring.

As planet viewing goes, how can you any better Jupiter or Saturn? You can't, and if you want to observe these two gas giants, you will need to rise just before dawn. At 5 A.M. Eastern, Saturn has already risen while Jupiter is just getting above the ESE horizon. You can watch these bright beauties from a spot with a clear, flat eastern horizon until just before sunrise when the glare from the Sun will obscure your view. Jupiter is the very bright morning object and Saturn is the fainter, about 10 degrees away from Jupiter and a bit farther off the horizon. By the end of April, this pair will be rising almost an hour and a half earlier. By 5 A.M. Eastern on the 30th, Jupiter will be well separated from your horizon and very easy to spot in the pre-dawn sky as will Saturn.

Happy hunting!
Leslie F. Brown, Ph.D.
Physics & Astronomy
Connecticut College

"The Stars are Ours" - Niantic Neighbors magazine published March 2021

For those who are early evening sky watchers, unfortunately, there are not many planets visible in our before-midnight March skies. The exception is Mars. During this month, Mars appears as rusty-reddish-wihte orb that can be seen in the constellation of Taurus, the Bull. Mars will be visible throughout the month after sunset, and before midnight when it sets in the South-West. March 19th, after sunset, Mars forms a triptych with the bright, red-giant star, Aldebaran, and the waxing crescent Moon. On this date, Mars will be separated from the Moon by less than 3∞ and from Aldebaran by less than 7∞. It is not quite the 2020 Great Conjunction, but it will still produce a lovely celestial grouping.


The month of March is best known for the spring equinox which occurs on March 20th this year. This date marks the start of astronomical spring for those of us in the Northern hemisphere and we all begin to feel the increasing warmth of the Sun and the lengthening of daylight, as the seasons change. The full March Moon this year falls on March 28th, a week or so after the equinox. This full Moon is known by many names such as the Worm Moon, the Crow Moon (both Native American), and the Lenten Moon (Christian).


For those who rise before dawn, on March 6th, Mercury reaches Greatest Western Elongation. This is when Mercury achieves its largest angular distance west of the Sun and when it is easiest to actually see this orb in our pre-dawn sky, leading the Sun by a whopping 27∞. Look for this planet low on your ESE horizon between 5:30 and 6:00a.m. Binoculars will help!


Your donations to STARS to STEM will support more local astronomy public engagement in Niantic and our surrounding communities. Donations can be made by mail to STARS to STEM, Inc. P.O. Box 616, Niantic, CT. 06357 or on-line at http://www.starstostem.org. Thank you !