By Andy Veh, for the Redoubt Reporter
Days are getting longer and nights are getting shorter. Thus, this might be my last column before fall, unless a special or unexpected astronomical event were to happen during the summer.
The winter constellations Orion, Gemini, Taurus, Canis Major and Auriga with all their bright stars are now visible in the west, setting during the late evening, and Leo with its bright star Regulus is speeding across the sky. I perceive Leo as the harbinger of spring — when it appears in the east, winter’s end will soon be here, and when it reaches the western horizon, flowers are in full bloom and deciduous plants will have regained their leaves. In addition, the summer triangle comprised of the bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair, reappears in the northeast.
Shortly after sunset, during late dusk, start looking toward the northwest horizon and you should see reddish Mars quite close to the horizon. Around April 19 it should get really interesting as Mercury joins Mars, and the very crescent moon is nearby. Mars and Mercury will be really close April 21. While Mars gets harder to spot after that, Mercury should get easier to see, as it appears higher in the northwest at the end of the month.
Venus appears higher and much brighter and more brilliant in the west. Follow a line from Venus toward the horizon to find Mars and Mercury and the Pleiades star cluster in between. The still-crescent moon is near Venus on April 21. The accompanying diagram shows the western sky on that date.
Jupiter appears high above the southern horizon, near Leo’s Regulus. It is joined by the waxing first-quarter moon April 26.
Saturn rises late in the evening but remains low in the southern sky, making a large triangle with Arcturus and Spica in the southern sky. The third-quarter moon is nearby, on April 12. The virtually full moon is near Saturn on April 7.
My younger son, Nicholas, 7, recently looked through our small backyard telescope. He enjoyed bright Venus, but especially Jupiter, which showed three of its moons that evening, and our moon to which he moved the telescope himself, commenting that he counted or estimated 100-plus craters.
Uranus and Neptune are not visible this month, since they rise and set at almost the same time as the sun.
The Lyrid meteor shower from April 16 through 25 peaked in the early morning hours of April 2. To see it, find the constellation Lyra with its bright star Vega high above the southern horizon. As the meteors seem to emanate from that spot in the sky, look all around Lyra.
The moon was full April 3 to 4. Just as it happened last year in April, we were able to see a total lunar eclipse in Alaska, starting April 3. Unfortunately the umbral contact (when Earth’s main shadow obscures the moon) began at 1 a.m. April 4 and totality occurred around 4 a.m. Hence, the timing was really not convenient for public viewing. Of course, a total lunar eclipse can be viewed from any place with binoculars or just the naked eye.
Andy Veh is an associate professor of physics, math and astronomy at Kenai Peninsula College.