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Celestial News: Amazing April sky events

Jimmy Westlake
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
April skies will be full of amazing celestial events, including a great display of the annual Lyrid meteor shower on the night of April 21 to 22. A single observer can expect to see up to 20 meteors per hour, at the peak. A bright Lyrid meteor was captured in this photograph taken on April 22, 2012. Lyrid meteors pour out of the constellation of Lyra, near its brightest star Vega.
Jimmy Westlake, 2012/courtesy

One of the things that has always drawn me to the starry sky is its ability to pull me away from my earthly concerns, even if only for a little while. Just a few minutes spent pondering the mysteries of the universe alone and under the open sky helps to anchor my feet more firmly on the ground.

With this in mind, wherever you are, I invite you to step out and join me in watching and enjoying the many celestial events unfolding in our April skies.

As the month begins, we find the dazzling evening star Venus creeping up on the familiar Seven Sisters or Pleiades star cluster in the western sky at dusk. On the early evening Friday, Venus will appear superimposed on the little star cluster, a rare event that only happens on one night every eight years. The view through binoculars will be spectacular, with brilliant Venus looking like a supernova exploding amongst the dozens of glittering stars in the Pleiades. Start looking around 8:30 p.m., just as the colors of dusk are fading into darkness. 

Next up will be the April’s Full Egg Super Moon on Tuesday, April 7. The first full moon of spring is traditionally called the Egg Moon, but this year’s Egg Moon happens on the same day that the moon is closest to the Earth in its orbit (perigee). On April 7, the Egg Moon becomes full at 8:35 p.m., only 8 hours after passing its perigee and qualifying it as a Super Moon.

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According to the website timeanddate.com, a Super Moon appears about 14% larger than a Micro Moon (when the full moon is farthest from Earth) and about 7% larger than the average full moon. Is that size difference enough to be noticeable to the naked eye? If the Micro and Super moons were placed side by side in the sky, the difference would be obvious, but, place either one by itself in a wide-open sky, and it’s doubtful that most folks would be able to discern the difference.

Still, you’ll get a kick out of watching that big ol’ Full Egg Super Moon rise in the eastern sky within minutes after the sun goes down in the western sky on April 7.

It’s no coincidence that Easter Sunday follows the Full Egg Moon this year. The rule for determining the date of Easter Sunday is this: Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.

The outer planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are currently grouped together in the predawn sky in an unusual triple syzygy. (Great word – look it up!) The Moon, during its waning phases, will pose beside each planet one by one, beginning on Tuesday, April 14.

Early risers that morning will see brilliant Jupiter beaming beside the moon. The next morning, Wednesday, April 15, Saturn will pair up with the moon and Thursday, April 16, it’s Mars’ turn. The sun rises around 7:10 a.m., so catch the action before 6 a.m. while the sky is still dark.

The moon will be in its new phase on Wednesday, April 22, the morning of the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower, providing perfect dark conditions for watching scores of shooting stars zip across the sky. The annual Lyrid meteor shower is the oldest on record, having been observed every year for over 2,000 years. The ancient Chinese recorded that April Lyrid meteors “fell like rain” in the year 5 BC, and, in the year 1803, a reporter from Richmond, Virginia, noted that “those starry meteors seemed to fall from every point in the heavens, in such numbers as to resemble a shower of sky rockets …” 

Nowadays, the Lyrid meteor shower is much more modest, producing around 15 to 20 meteors each hour, but still occasionally producing a flurry of many more. Its unpredictability is one reason to always keep an eye on the Lyrid meteor shower for surprises.

The meteors will stream out of the little constellation of Lyra, the Harp, in the northeastern sky beginning around 10 p.m. Tuesday, April 21, when Lyra rises. Lyra’s bright star Vega will be your guide. The best viewing comes in the hours after midnight that night, making it the morning of April 22. Some meteors, in fewer numbers, will be visible on the night before and after the peak.

Finally, we end the month with a beautiful sunset conjunction of Venus and the slender crescent moon on the evening of Sunday, April 26. Look west at dusk for the stunning view and… bring your binoculars! 

Enjoy the sky show. I’ll be out there watching with you.

Jimmy Westlake retired from teaching at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Spring in 2017, after 19 years as their professor of physical sciences. His column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography website at jwestlake.com.


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