May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Celestial Highlights for April 2015

Posted: Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

by Robert Victor and Robert D. Miller

A predawn total lunar eclipse on Saturday, April 4. (For more on that event, see the March issue of CCS). As many as four planets can be seen at dusk. Many bright stars are gathering in the west before their annual departures later in spring.

Few people may choose to arise early to catch the start of the lunar eclipse on Saturday morning, April 4, when the Moon begins to enter the umbra, or dark central core of Earth’s shadow at 3:16 a.m. PDT. For the next 1.7 hours, progressively more of the Moon will be immersed in Earth’s circular dark shadow, until the start of total eclipse at 4:58 a.m. Even before then, the rusty color typical of the Moon in deep eclipse should be noticed, at least in the lower part of the Moon’s disk, closer to the center of Earth’s shadow. Totality lasts less than five minutes, as the northern (upper) edge of the Moon barely passes within the outer edge of Earth’s umbra. There should be a pronounced difference in color and brightness between the top and bottom edges of the Moon. Totality ends by 5:03 a.m., after which the Moon gradually emerges from shadow.

For information on how to estimate the color and brightness of the Moon during totality, refer to the Celestial Highlights article in the March issue of eCCS.

If you prefer to restrict your viewing to just an hour, I recommend 4:30 until 5:30 a.m. PDT, centering on deepest eclipse at 5:00 a.m. At mid-totality, the Moon will be quite dim compared to a normal Full Moon, and observers in dark locations will get a spectacular view of the Milky Way, from Cassiopeia low in NNE, through the Summer Triangle of Vega-Deneb-Altair high in E, and through Sagittarius and Scorpius (with Saturn and Antares) in the southern sky, these two constellations along with Ophiuchus hosting the central bulge of our galaxy.

Spica will be just 10° upper left of the Moon at mid-eclipse on April 4, with golden Arcturus high to their upper right. Next morning, on Easter Sunday April 5, Spica will appear within 4° below the Moon, and on April 8 the Moon will appear within 2° upper right of Saturn and 10° upper right of twinkling Antares, the red supergiant star marking the Scorpion’s heart. The waning gibbous Moon moves through the predawn Milky Way Apr. 9-11, and by Apr. 12 it has passed Last Quarter phase and so appears slightly less than half full. Last easy view of the waning crescent will be low in E an hour before sunup on Apr. 16, with another chance for binocular users half an hour before sunrise on Apr. 17, only 30 hours before New.

The brightest “stars” in Evening mid-twilight in April 2015, in order of brilliance, are: Venus in W to WNW; Jupiter, passing just south of overhead around midmonth; Sirius in SW sky, bluish and twinkling, lower as month progresses; Mercury, emerging from superior conjunction beyond Sun on Apr. 9 to appear very low in WNW to lower right of Venus starting around Apr. 18; Arcturus in ENE to E, higher as month progresses; and Capella, high in NW.

The gap between Venus and Jupiter continues to close, from 84° on April 1 to 51° on April 30, on the way to their spectacular rendezvous on June 30.

This is a good month to follow the motion of Venus against background stars. During Apr. 9-11, Venus passes within 3° S of the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters star cluster, an especially beautiful sight for binoculars! Students can make nightly sketches of the appearance of Venus and surrounding stars around those dates, and during Apr. 16-22 as Venus passes Aldebaran and the Hyades cluster, those stars together comprising the “V”-shaped head of Taurus, the Bull. Venus will pass between the tips of the Bull’s horns on the evening of May 1. Meanwhile Jupiter lingers within 5°-6° east of the Beehive all month. Use binoculars to find that star cluster.

Include the Moon in your sketches when it appears. On Apr. 19, 40 min. after sunset, the thin young crescent, age 32 hours past New, will be low in W to WNW. Binoculars may show Mercury within 8° to Moon’s lower right, and dim Mars within 4° upper left of Mercury and within 5° lower right of Moon. This is the same night Venus passes closest north (7° upper right) of Aldebaran. On Apr. 20, the lovely crescent Moon will be almost directly below Venus, within 9° lower right of Aldebaran, and 9° lower left of the Pleiades. On Apr. 21, the Moon climbs to 5° upper left of Aldebaran, while Venus shines within 8° to their upper right. Far to their lower right, dim Mars glows only 1.5° to upper left of bright Mercury.

On Apr. 22, Betelgeuse, shoulder of Orion, is 10° S (lower left) of the crescent Moon, while Mercury-Mars appear closest to each other, 1.3° apart, with fainter Mars to lower left. This is the first evening emerging Mercury is higher than sinking Mars. They’ll be 2.0° apart on Apr. 23, while Moon is midway between Betelgeuse and Pollux, brighter of Gemini twins. On Apr. 24, the fat crescent (42%) Moon exits Winter Hexagon nearly halfway from Procyon to Pollux. On Apr. 25, the First Quarter Moon, half full, is 9° lower right of Jupiter.

On Apr. 26, the Moon is in waxing gibbous phase, 8° to Jupiter’s lower left, and on the next night, Apr. 27, it appears 4° S of Regulus, heart of Leo, the Lion.

On Apr. 30, Mercury passes within 2° S of the Pleiades (use binoculars to see the cluster). During Apr. 30-May 8 Mercury stays 22° lower left of Venus as both planets move eastward against the star background.

At dusk on May 1, the Moon, not quite Full, appears 5° above Spica, and on the next evening, 8° to the star’s lower left. Full Moon will occur on the evening of May 3, with the Moon 21° to the lower left of Spica.

Mid-April is a good time for students to start keeping a checklist of bright stars seen each evening, within the first hour after sunset. Many bright stars are gathered in the western sky, including the huge Winter Hexagon. Striking changes in the visibility of stars will occur in the next several weeks, as a result of the Earth’s revolution around the Sun. Students can list their sightings of the planets, too! An observer’s log is provided here.

For related classroom and desktop activities for students to explain these observations, go to this link:

http://www.classroomscience.org/getting-started-in-skywatching-for-school-year-2014-2015

and then scroll down to “Modeling seasonal visibility of stars and visibility of the planets.” Includes planet orbit charts, a data table for plotting planets, and an activity sheet with 15 questions on visibility of stars and planets in 2015-2016.

For more information on sky events in 2015, see these articles and activities:

http://www.classroomscience.org/celestial-highlights-for-2015

(A selection of twilight sky charts for use during months of the best planet gatherings.)

Links to related activities on the changing visibility of stars and planets, a selection of sky maps for northern California (exact for lat. 40° N), and a preview of Comet Halley’s next appearance in 2061, are now available at www.abramsplanetarium.org/msta/

Robert D. Miller, who provided the twilight charts, did graduate work in Planetarium Science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

One Response

  1. Please get this to Robert Victor. I am a long time friend who has lost touch with him.

    Message:

    Hello my friend, how has life been for you ? Remember me ? Bird watching and the astronomy event in Alpena/Atlanta, Michigan. Good times…

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