As we head into spring it’s time for dusting off those telescope lenses and brushing up on some constellations. With the warmer weather coming in there’s also hope to see some meteors as April finishes off with the Lyrids meteor shower and a glimpse at the gas giants.
Starting of the month of April there is a full moon on the 4th. This moon was often referred to as the Full Flower Moon by the Native Americans as this is when spring flowers were in abundance. Accompanying the full moon this month is a total lunar eclipse visible throughout most of North America, South America, Eastern Asia and Australia. Unfortunately the UK will not be able to witness the rusty-coloured Moon as it occurs just after midday on the 4th when the Moon is below the horizon.
Eclipses of the Moon can be viewed with the naked eye and even a pair of binoculars can be used to view the Moon’s surface. Lunar eclipses happen when the Earth passes between the Moon and the Sun causing Earth’s shadow to fall over the Moon’s surface. Unlike the solar eclipse last month it is safe to view the Moon without precautions during this period if you are in a suitable location at the time. For those of us in the UK and Europe it is unfortunate that the lunar eclipse will not be visible this month; however the next lunar eclipse visible in the UK and Europe will be on Monday 28 September this year so mark this date in your diaries.
The spring sky opens up some of the most unusual stories in the night’s sky as a water snake; a crow and a goblet come into view, not to mention a long forgotten wise owl. Hydra, the water snake is the largest constellation in size. It is so large; it can take up to six hours for it to fully unveil itself in the night’s sky. So viewing this entire constellation can take some time. The stars making up the head of Hydra are very far away from each other despite how they appear from the Earth. The northernmost star in Hydra’s head, called Epsilon Hydrae, is actually a system of five stars. Alphard (Alpha Hydrae) is the brightest star in this constellation.
According to mythology, Hydra was a monster killed by Hercules as one of his twelve labours which he had to complete to show remorse for a terrible crime he had committed. However Hydra proved to be a challenge as the heads of Hydra grew back as soon as they were cut off and Hercules had to gain help from his nephew Iolaus to defeat the monster.
Sitting just above the tail of Hydra is the constellation of Corvus the crow. This constellation represents the unfaithful raven of the god Apollo, who sent the bird with a goblet to receive water but instead spent time at a fig tree waiting on the fruit to ripen. The Crow returned to Apollo with a water snake in its grip, claiming it to be the cause of his delay and why he returned without a goblet of water. Corvus was punished for this and Apollo turned his beautiful white colour to the black we all recognise ravens and crows with today. We now see Corvus in the sky next to the goblet known as Crater and next to Hydra the water snake, as these represent his condemnation to everlasting thirst by the guardians of the Hydra over the goblet and its contents. Supposedly this explains why even today the raven is the only bird that does not bring water to its fledglings.
Lastly while looking at the skies around Hydra, it’s only fair to mention the long forgotten Noctua, also known as the Owl. This constellation appears on older star charts as Noctua sits on the end of Hydra’s tail. This pattern of stars was first created in 1776 by Pierre Charles Le Monnier (also known as Lemonier), a French astronomer to commemorate the voyage of his fellow astronomer and compatriot Alexandre Guy Pingre to Rodriguez Isle to observe the 1761 transit of Venus. Originally it was a blue rock thrush for reasons that weren’t made clear and was changed numerous times to represent different birds before Alexander Jamieson transformed Noctua into an owl in his 1822 Celestial Atlas. Lemonier composed the pattern from nearly twenty stars, all of which are mostly faint. Unfortunately for them neither the Owl or Noctua are recognised today as an official constellation and its stars have been divided up between Virgo and Libra, two zodiacal constellations. The irony is apparent as many birds grace the night’s sky yet the bird associated with night time lived a short life amongst the recognised constellations.
As one of the oldest constellations in the night’s sky, archaeological evidence points to Leo the Lion being mentioned as early as 4000 BC by the Mesopotamians. By the Persians, Leo was known as Shir or Ser, the Syrians as Aryo, the Turks as Artan and by the Babylonians it was known as UR.GU.LA meaning the Great Lion. In the night sky Leo has a dominant presence, it is easy to find at this time of the year as the head of the lion resembles a backwards question mark.
Leo is often referred to in Greek myths as the Nemean Lion who was killed by Hercules as one of his twelve labours, just like Hydra who was mentioned earlier. According to the myth, the Nemean Lion could not be killed as it’s skin could not be pierced by any weapon. Hercules overcame this by fighting the lion in a cave and eventually choking it to death. Afterwards Hercules used the Lion’s claws to remove its coat and wore it as a cloak for protection and to display his bravery. As king of the beasts Leo was placed amongst the stars just like his successor Hercules.
The final constellation that is worth mentioning this month is Virgo, which resembles a sun lounger in the night’s sky and just in time for the warmer weather. As well being one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, Virgo contains one of the brightest stars in the sky, Spica. It is an interesting constellation as it contains eleven Messier objects, mostly galaxies, and twenty stars with planets orbiting them. The constellation of Virgo is often depicted holding a sheath of corn and is referred to as the goddess of harvest. However there seems to be an air of mystery around Virgo as this constellation has been associated with many mythological figures such as Dike, in Greek mythology and Erigone in Roman mythology who both represent justice.
Spotting the constellations and learning about their position in the sky can come in handy when something like a meteor shower appears throughout the month. As meteor showers can be unpredictable and patience proves to be a virtue when waiting for the first glimpse, putting some constellation knowledge into action can be helpful and especially this month.
Between 16 and 25 April every year, the skies are graced with the Lyrid meteor shower. This year the Lyrids will peak on the night of 22April. It is named after the constellation Lyra which is the radiant point of the shower and is considered the oldest meteor shower known to man. The Lyrids are thought to originate from Comet Thatcher which takes 415 years to orbit the Sun.
To view the Lyrids, it’s best to get to a dark location and face east, although the meteors will mostly come from the direction of the constellation Lyra they can appear anywhere in the sky. To find Lyra, look for the flower pot shape of Hercules and the next bright star to the East is Vega, the brightest star in the constellation of Lyra. Those in the Northern Hemisphere are best situated for viewing the meteor shower however the Lyrids will be visible in the Southern Hemisphere between midnight and dawn on 22 April.
The two gas giants in our Solar System can be spotted this month, Jupiter is still dancing across the night’s sky but has moved into the constellation of Cancer, whilst the ringed giant Saturn can be found in the early hours of the morning near the constellation of Libra. As we move further into Spring and towards the last week of April, Venus and Mercury will be visible for a short period of time around 10pm before the Sun fully sets. Like Jupiter, Venus appears as a very bright star however Mercury will be tougher to spot due to its size and close position to the Sun. Anyone wanting to view Mercury will have to head to a clear area away from any tall buildings as it is very close to the horizon. Mercury and Venus are following close to Taurus the Bull and Orion the Hunter this month as we bid farewell to our renowned winter constellations and welcome the warm weather and new celestial objects into season.
(Article by Samantha Steed, Education Support Officer)