In April, warmer nights start to make it easier for sky-watchers to spend more time enjoying the night sky. Several bright planets will add to the sky’s splendor this year, and the year’s first good meteor shower may be seen in the last half of the month. Mars, among the stars of Taurus the Bull, will be seen in our evening skies, but the best and brightest planets will be seen before dawn.
In mid-April, Mars stands high in the western sky, near Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus. Binoculars will show Mars among the stars of the open star cluster called the Hyades. On April 8th, the waning crescent Moon may be seen just below Mars, until they both appear to set in the west around 11:00 pm.
Giant planet Jupiter rises in the southeast sky by 1:30 pm in early April, but by 11:30 pm at the end of the month. Bright at magnitude –2.3, Jupiter dominates against the background stars of constellation Ophiuchus. As we move closer to Jupiter in our orbit, its colored cloud bands (atmosphere) and its four biggest moons come into easy view through telescopes. On the morning of April 23rd, the gibbous Moon will be seen just above Jupiter.
Saturn rises in the southwest at 3:00 am on April 1st; by 1:30 am on April 30th. Any telescope will reveal Saturn’s spectacular rings which make Saturn a constant show-piece for sky-watchers. Both Saturn and Jupiter will be favorably placed in the southwest sky for several hours before dawn (Jupiter brighter and higher).
Venus is even brighter than Jupiter, but it does not rise until 5:30 am, which means it will be coming up in twilight. Even so, Venus can be seen in the gradually brightening sky, close to the eastern horizon.
This month one of the year’s better meteor showers, the Lyrids, will peak on the night of April 22nd/23rd. Normally 20 meteors per hour can be seen from this meteor shower, looking toward the northeast horizon from 9:00 pm to 1:30 pm. However the bright, nearly Full Moon (on the 19th), will make it harder to see the meteors because it rises around 11:00 pm. But if we look northeast starting around 10:00 pm and up to midnight before the Moon gets really high in the sky, we may see 5 to 10 meteors per hour. It is worth trying.
Meteor showers are caused by comet debris dropped from periodic comets passing through our upper atmosphere as we plunge into these debris fields in our orbit around the Sun. They are named by the constellation that occupies the place in the sky from which the comets appear to come. Thus the name, Lyrids, comes from the constellation, Lyra the harp.