By Deane Morrison, University of Minnesota
April opens with spectacular views of planets in both the morning and evening skies. Early risers who look to the southeast will see Jupiter, brilliant in the predawn darkness. Off to the east of Jupiter, red Mars hangs right below golden Saturn.
But this closeness doesn’t last. The very next day, it will be obvious that Saturn has moved away from Mars. In fact, both Saturn and Jupiter are heading westward, away from the red planet. On the 9th, Saturn will be almost exactly midway between Mars, to the left, and Jupiter. By month’s end, the gap between Mars and Saturn will have opened to nearly 20 degrees.
While Saturn and Jupiter are pulling away from Mars, Earth is moving closer. During April the distance to Mars drops from 135 million miles to 114 million miles. Also, Jupiter is slowly drifting closer to Saturn. In December these two planets make a very close pass.
In the evening sky, Venus visits the lovely Pleiades star cluster. On the 1st, the cluster hovers close above the queen of planets. The next night, Venus has arrived at the border, and on the 3rd the planet appears to be another star in the cluster. On the 4th, Venus is above the Pleiades, and from then on the two objects rapidly separate. The one wrinkle is the bright waxing moon that shines those nights, so keep your binoculars handy.
And if that weren’t enough, April’s full moon is one of the closer ones this year and qualifies as a “supermoon.” It rises the evening of the 7th, looking not only bigger and brighter than usual, but very round because it’ll be only a couple of hours or so from the moment of perfect fullness. Also, have a look on the 25th, when a young crescent moon of the next cycle appears below Venus and next to Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the bull.
April ends with an astronomically based holiday that the ancient Celts (and many contemporary ones) called Beltane. It was celebrated on May 1, which began formally at sundown April 30 and was one of four “cross-quarter” days falling midway between an equinox and a solstice. The night of April 30 was when evil spirits that had been wreaking havoc since Halloween – another cross-quarter day – had a last fling. At dawn on May 1, they had to begin their annual six-month exile from the world of humans. Beltane was, and is, a celebration of the coming summer and hopes for an abundant harvest.
The University of Minnesota offers public viewings of the night sky at its Duluth and Twin Cities campuses. For more information and viewing schedules, see:
Duluth, Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium: www.d.umn.edu/planet.
Twin Cities, Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics: www.astro.umn.edu/outreach/pubnight.
Check out astronomy programs, free telescope events, and planetarium shows at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum: www.bellmuseum.umn.edu/astronomy.
Find U of M astronomers and links to the world of astronomy at www.astro.umn.edu.