The Sky Above You – April 2020
By Duncan Lunan
The Moon will be Full on April 8th, which will be a Supermoon, full at its closest to Earth, and the brightest Moon of the year. The Moon will be New on April 23rd.
The planet Mercury is invisible in April. Europe’s Bepicolombo probe to Mercury, named after the pioneer of planetary slingshots, will perform one on April 13th as it passes the Earth, to turn inwards towards the Sun.
Venus is at its most brilliant in the evening sky in April, setting half an hour after midnight in mid-March, and around 11 p.m. by the end of the month. Venus passes in front of the Pleiades open cluster in Taurus on April 3rd, and the Moon is near Venus on April 26th.
Mars is in Capricornus and rises with Saturn about 3 a.m. in early April, only one degree from it on April 1st. The Moon is near Mars on April 16th.
Jupiter rises in Sagittarius about 3.00 a.m. in April, about half an hour before Saturn. The shadow of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io will cross the disc north of the Great Red Spot on the morning of April 22nd. The crescent Moon is between Jupiter and Saturn on 15th April.
Saturn is close to Jupiter throughout this month, as above.
Uranus is too close to the Sun to be visible in April, in conjunction behind it on April 26th.
Neptune in Aquarius is also invisible in April, after superior conjunction on the far side of the Sun on March 8th.
After a long gap between meteor showers in the first quarter of the year, the Lyrid shower peaks around midnight on the night of 21st to 22nd April, with no Moon to spoil them. There’s always the possibility of a major outburst of the meteors from Comet Thatcher – the last one was in 1982.
After an even longer wait for a bright comet in the northern hemisphere, there may, repeat MAY, be one during April. Comet ATLAS, named after the asteroid-detecting telescope which discovered it, is heading sunwards and growing brighter at an unexpected rate. At the moment of writing it’s in Ursa Major, and will be in the faint constellation Camelopardalis (too faint for our map, but to the right of the Plough) for most of April. By April 15th it will be just south of the curve joining Venus and Capella (the bright star in the constellation Auriga) to Dubhe, the northern ‘pointer’ in the Plough leading to the Pole Star. By April 30th it will be almost on the line from Venus through Capella, projected, and by May 15th it will be level with the little triangle of ‘the Kids’ (next to Capella), to the right of them as it descends towards the northwest horizon. There’s no certainty about how bright it will become; as Patrick Moore was fond of saying, “comets are like cats. They have tails, and nobody knows what they’ll do next”.
Meetings of the Astronomers of the Future Club in Troon are on hold until further notice. For more information contact Alan Martin on 07947 331632.
Duncan Lunan’s latest book “From the Moon to the Stars”, a collection of space travel stories old and new relating to the Moon and Project Apollo, illustrated by Sydney Jordan, is now available from the publishers at https://othersidebooks.wordpress.com, as well as on Amazon or through booksellers; details of that and his other books are on Duncan’s website, www.duncanlunan.com.
The Sky Above You
By Duncan Lunan
About this Column
I began writing this column in early 1983 at the suggestion of the late Chris Boyce. At that time the Post Office would allow 1000 free mailings to start a new business, just under the number of small press newspapers in the UK at the time. I printed a flyer with the help of John Braithwaite (of Braithwaite Telescopes) offering a three-part column for £5, with the sky this month, a series of articles for beginners, and a monthly news feature. The column ran from May 1983 to May 1993 in various newspapers and magazines, but never in more than five outlets at a time, although every one of those 1000-plus papers would have included an astrology column. Since then it’s appeared sporadically in a range of publications including The Southsider in Glasgow and the Dalyan Courier in Turkey, but most often, normally three times per year, in Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos from the first issue in March 2003 until the last in January 2018. It continues to appear monthly in Troon's Going Out and Orkney News. Enquries from other outlets welcomed!
The monthly maps for the column were drawn for me by Jim Barker, based on similar, uncredited ones in Dr. Leon Hausman’s “Astronomy Handbook” (Fawcett Publications, 1956). Jim had to redraw or elongate several of them because they were drawn for mid-US latitudes, about 40 degrees North, making them usable over most of the northern hemisphere. The biggest change needed was in November when only Dubhe, Merak and Megrez of the Big Dipper, as the US version called it, were visible at that latitude. In the UK, all the stars of the Plough are circumpolar, always above the horizon. We decided to keep an insert in the January map showing the position of M42, the Great Nebula in the Sword of Orion, and for that reason, to stick with the set time of 9 p.m., (10 p.m. BST in summer), although in Scotland the sky isn’t dark then during June and July.
To use the maps in theory you should hold them overhead, aligning the North edge to true north, marked by Polaris and indicated by Dubhe and Merak, the Pointers. It’s more practical to hold the map in front of you when looking south and then rotate it as you face east, south and west. Some readers are confused because east is on the left, opposite to terrestrial maps, but that’s because they’re the other way up. When you’re facing south and looking at the sky, east is on your left.
The star patterns are the same for each month of each year, and only the positions of the planets change. (“Astronomy Handbook” accidentally shows Saturn in Virgo during May, showing that the maps weren’t originally drawn for the Hausman book.) Consequently regular readers for a year will by then have built up a complete set of twelve.