The Night Sky This Month

April 2014

MarsIt’s another good month for stargazing, especially for northerners finally emerging from the clouds and deep snow of a long winter.  Mars reaches opposition this month, rising in the east as the Sun sets in the west, and putting on its best show since 2007.  Jupiter remains big, bright, and accessible in Gemini, its belts and zones and moons still resplendent in a small telescope.  Saturn rises a little before midnight and slowly brightens throughout the month.  The Moon takes a part in two spectacles.  On the evening of April 3, it saunters through the stars of the Hyades.  And on the 15th, it passes into the Earth’s shadow and goes into total eclipse for observers in most of North and Central America.  Here’s what’s going on in the night sky this month…

1 April.  Jupiter reaches greatest eastern quadrature, sitting in a position 90º east of the Sun.  The planet is three months past opposition, but it still shines at a brilliant magnitude -2.1 and looks big and bright in a small scope.  It remains in the constellation Gemini and appears high above the southern horizon as seen from the northern hemisphere and low over the northern horizon in the southern hemisphere in the early evening hours.

3 April.  For observers in North America, the waxing crescent Moon passes through the Hyades star cluster in the constellation Taurus.  For most locations in the Americas, the Moon will pass over some of the “deltas”, three closely-spaced stars in the northern arm of this V-shaped cluster.  Binoculars or a small scope will enhance your view of this event.  But they are optional.  As a results of the orientation of the Moon’s orbit relative to the ecliptic, our nearest celestial neighbor will appear to pass through or very near the Hyades every month from now until 2020.

A  waxing crescent Moon passes through the Hyades on April 3, 2014 as seen from North America.

A waxing crescent Moon passes through the Hyades on April 3, 2014 as seen from North America.

7 April.  First Quarter Moon, 08:31 UT

8 April.  The planet Mars is at opposition, rising in the east as the Sun sets in the west.  On April 14 the planet makes its closest approach to Earth for the next couple of years.  We’ll get the best view of the planet since 2007.  Mars is about 92.4 million kilometers from Earth at mid-month and spans a modest apparent diameter of 15″.  Some detail should be visible on the planet’s surface this month in steady sky with a telescope at 120x or more.  Look for Mars rising in the east an hour after sunset near the icy-white star Spica.  Shining at magnitude -1.5 by mid-month, ochre-colored Mars is brighter than Spica or any other star in the sky.

Mars and Spica rise in the east-southeast at about 10 p.m. on April 8, 2014.

Mars and Spica rise in the east-southeast at about 10 p.m. on April 8, 2014.

10 April. Look for a waxing gibbous Moon near the bright white star Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo.

15 April.  Full Moon, 07:42 UT.

15 April. Tonight features a total lunar eclipse for observers in North and Central America and western South America.  The total eclipse begins at 7:07 UT, peaks at 7:46 UT, and ends at 8:25 UT.  This is the first total lunar eclipse visible in North America since 2011.  During a lunar eclipse, the full Moon passes into Earth’s shadow and appears to grow dark over several hours.  Some sunlight refracts and reddens as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere and casts a copper-color onto the Moon’s visible surface.   Weather permitting, this event is visible without optics, although the view is enhanced with binoculars or small scope at low magnification.  During this eclipse, the Moon will lie in the constellation Virgo just 1º from Spica and a little less than 10º east of Mars.

17 April.  Look for Saturn near the waning gibbous Moon in the constellation Libra.  Saturn brightens this month and approaches magnitude +0.1 on the way to its opposition on May 10.  It is already a fine sight in a small scope.  The rings are dramatically tilted by 22º from edge-on.

22 April.  Last Quarter Moon, 07:52 UT

A waning crescent Moon and Venus rise in the eastern sky before sunrise, as seen on April 25, 2014.

A waning crescent Moon and Venus rise in the eastern sky before sunrise, as seen on April 25, 2014.

25 April.  Look for a slender waning crescent Moon in the eastern sky with brilliant Venus before dawn.  At magnitude -4.3, the planet still outshines all others.

29 April.  New Moon, 06:14 UT