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The Night Sky Guide for April 2012

Constellations, deep-sky objects, planets and events, Tonight’s Sky

Highlights of the April Sky Transcript:

Evening Planets

In early April, four planets grace the sky at nightfall.

In the west, Jupiter hangs low on the horizon. Around mid-month, the planet disappears into the sunset.

Venus blazes just above Jupiter in the west. Use a telescope to see its crescent phase.

In the south, Mars is already climbing high. It will remain visible into the early morning.

Saturn will shine low in the east in the evening but climb higher during the night. On April 15th, Saturn reaches opposition, meaning it is opposite the Sun in Earth’s sky. It is also closer to Earth than it’ll be the rest of the year, making it
appear slightly bigger and brighter.

Constellations and Deep-Sky Objects

Late in the evening, high in the northern sky lies the Great Bear, Ursa Major.
The constellation of Ursa Major contains the well-known star pattern, the Big Dipper. It resembles a large drinking cup with a handle.

The two stars that make up the front side of the cup are called “pointer stars” because they point toward the star Polaris, also known as the North Star. The Big Dipper overflows with interesting stars and deep-sky objects.

The stars Mizar and Alcor make up a double-star system that can be seenwithout a telescope. In ancient times, when Mizar and Alcor were even closer together, they were used as a test of keen eyesight.

M81 and M82 are a magnificent pair of galaxies, showpieces of the northern night sky. M82 has an irregular shape, bestowed by a collision with its larger neighbor, M81.

Turning to the south, we see Leo, the Lion, heralding the coming of spring. In Greek mythology, Leo is the great beast slain by Hercules.

The star Denebola, which in Arabic means “tail,” represents exactly that. The bright star Regulus is the heart of the Lion.

Leo has several galaxies in his belly. M65, M66, and NGC 3628 make up the “Leo Triplet,” a lovely grouping of galaxies easily seen with a telescope. Close by is another group. M95 and M96 are large spiral galaxies.

Between the Big Dipper and the head of Leo are three pairs of bright stars known to ancient Arab astronomers as “The Three Leaps of the Gazelle.”


The Lyrid meteor shower will be best seen in the early morning hours of April 22nd. Under a dark sky, you can expect to see up to 20 bright meteors per hour.

The night sky is always a celestial showcase. Explore its wonders from your own backyard.


Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute, Office of Public Outreach
Starfield images created with Stellarium
Mythological constellation forms from Firmamentum Sobiescianum sive
Uranographia by Johannes Hevelius, courtesy of the United States Naval Observatory
Jupiter image courtesy of Todd Gross
Venus image courtesy of Mario Weigand
Mars image courtesy of Matt Wedel
Saturn image courtesy of John Endreson
M81 and M82 image courtesy of the Digitized Sky Survey, AURA
Leo Triplet image courtesy of REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF
M95 and M96 image courtesy of the Digitized Sky Survey, AURA
Narrated by Nancy Calo
Music written by Jonn Serrie
Production: Lucy Albert, Greg Bacon, John Bintz, John Godfrey, and Vanessa Thomas



AstroEvents- Hunting things that “Flash” in the January Sky

AstroEvents- Hunting things that “Flash” in the January Sky

Credit: David Dickinsen

2012 is here, and the world shows no sign of ending as the heavens spin on their appointed rounds high overhead. But the diligent observer may be rewarded with several unique an spurious sights, both natural and manmade…

1st up is everyone’s favorite meteor shower named after an obsolete constellation; the Quadrantids peak the morning of January 4th in what is the first large meteor shower of the year. The peak is very swift, only lasting about 12 hours or so and is centered this year on 2:00 AM EST/7:00 AM UTC. This favors the U.S. East Coast in 2012, as the 79% waxing gibbous Moon will set around 2AM local the morning of the 4th for observers in mid-northern latitudes. The radiant of the shower lies at a declination of 52° degrees north at the junction of the modern constellations of Draco, Bootes and Hercules, and thus activity may be visible pre-midnite local, although the setting of the Moon and the rising of the radiant will raise sighting prospects considerably. Expect swift-moving meteors headed outward from the radiant above the handle of the Big Dipper to appear anywhere in the sky. The Quadrantids have been known since the early 1800’s, but there has been much conjecture as to the source parent body. Astronomer Fred Whipple noted in 1963 that the stream bears some resemblance to the Delta Aquarids, and that the orbital path has undergone alterations by the planet Jupiter in the last few thousand years. In 2003, SETI researcher Peter Jenniskens proposed that the source may be then recently discovered asteroid 2003 EH1, which has been tentatively linked to Comet C/1490 Y1, which approached Earth at a distance of 0.52 Astronomical Units on January 12th 1491. Be sure to keep an eye out for Quadrantids on these chilly January mornings, as we commemorate Quadrans Muralis, a constellation that is no longer! (more…)

The World’s Unluckiest Stargazer! – Fingers Crossed For The Perseids?

The World’s Unluckiest Stargazer! – Fingers Crossed For The Perseids?

I am the dead albatross on your boat.

I am the peacock feather in the house.

I am horseshoe carelessly nailed upside down so all the good luck falls out down a grid.

If you ever see me coming to stand next to you at a star party, meteor shower, or eclipse, you have permission to make the cross sign with your fingers and run backwards as fast as you can.

That’s because, for my 33 and a half years of sky gazing, I have managed to cause cloudy skies and inclement weather at every single major event I have attended.

Just for the record, I’m a keen amateur astronomer without a telescope. I follow as many Twitter astro accounts as I can, avidly retweeting the latest data from Cassini, and following lonely Mars landers as they bump across rusty rocks. I cried the first time I saw the ISS, and as a child, I used to stand in the garden with a compass, straining hard to see the northern lights. I never did.

My bad luck began in earnest when I went to Cornwall for the eclipse. A boyfriend and I spent a small fortune hiring out a dank, uncomfortable cottage in the middle of nowhere. I was so excited that I woke up at 6.30am every morning, causing us to be grey faced and exhausted for the whole pitiful ‘holiday.’ And of course, on the big day, there was 100% cloud cover and it was so cold we had to wear gloves.

One night, me and the chap were out in Sefton Park, Liverpool, admiring a wonderful conjunction of several planets dancing around a new moon like fairy lights. Flushed with happiness, we went in and congratulated ourselves for figuring out how to use a planisphere.  Next morning we were mortified to find out aurora had been visible ten minutes after we went in.

And indeed, only last week, I was photographing some incredible clouds where I live in Bristol, only to be told a short while later that even more aurora had decided to shimmy their way on to the sky’s stage while I had my back turned.

I travelled to America last year, and on my first night, I was so jetlagged that I shut the blind to keep out an incredibly bright moon. Mr Moon was very cross at my ignorance, and proceeded to turn bright red with rage, causing me to miss a spectacular lunar eclipse.

But the thing I have had the LEAST luck with…is meteor showers. I have stood out in back gardens and dark fields trying to catch a glimpse of these fleeting sky streaks at least three times a year from the age of 15. And guess what? Except for ONE Leonid I saw, cutting through soupy orange cloud two years ago, I have not had ANY luck. Truly disheartening.

That is, if you forget about last year. I was in Portland, on the west coast of America. Through a set of remarkable coincidences, which really do make me wonder if we are being pulled through our lives by twinkling cosmic threads, I ended up meeting some wonderful people who shared my love of all things that require tipping your chin up to 90 degrees to observe.

They took me out to a pitch-black nature reserve, bundled up with blankets and deckchairs, as bullfrogs boomed in the blackness, and baby racoons cavorted in the undergrowth.

On that magical, starry, starry night, we counted several hundred Perseids, each one causing me to gasp and grip the arm of my chair. One of the most memorable experiences of my life and one I long to repeat.

So. Will I be turning my head skywards for the Perseids this year? Of course I will. But judging from past form, I’d say, chances are, Bristol is not going to enjoy clear skies. I just seem to have that unfortunate effect on the sky over my head.

So if there are any astronomers in the Bristol area hoping for a good viewing, you may want to drive me out of town with planks and pitchforks. Either that, or take a trip to Inverness.

Follow me for further antics on twitter, I am @RadioVicky

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