Hello Stargazers and welcome to April! Well, as the saying goes “April showers bring May flowers”, so we may be low on clear nights for stargazing. Due to our climate and location cloud cover often interferes with our ability to see what the night sky has to offer, but we can live in optimism and hope!
If you ever want to give stargazing a go free from light pollution, cloud cover and with the helpful addition of powerful telescopes, we recommend Slooh! You can join Slooh for a small fee and join the Armagh Sky Sweepers stargazing club!
Remember that if you are giving stargazing a go the old fashioned way, please give your eyes around 20 minutes to fully adapt to the dark. Refrain from using your phone and if at all possible try to go to an area with lower light pollution rather than the centre of a town (10 miles or less from your home of course). Even if you do live in a town or city you can see quite a bit with the naked eye – so give it a go!
The Moon – this month it’s pink!
Now, before I get your hopes up, the moon sadly won’t be pink. It will very much keep its silvery appearance in the night sky. The name “Pink Moon” comes from Native American tribes. They tended to name the months after the colours associated with time of year. The April full moon became The Pink Moon due to the appearance of Creeping Phlox and other pink foliage.
It may appear more yellow and much larger than it is in reality when it is closer to our horizon. This month the full moon is on the 26th, and it is once again a supermoon! Supermoons are said to be bigger and brighter than your average full Moon (between 7% and 15% larger).
While the moon is so big and so close, why not seize the opportunity to learn the different mare on the moon? Mare are the darker patches on the moon; mare (pronouced mah-rey) translates from latin to “seas” as early astronomers mistook these basaltic planes for actual seas of water. They are in fact areas of iron-rich moon rock formed by volcanic eruptions early in the history of the solar system. The iron makes them less reflective of the sun’s light and therefore they appear much darker to us on Earth. The mare all have different names – see if you can spot them all!
Guess who’s back?! Venus!
Ah Venus, it’s been a long winter without you! Venus makes her triumphant return to our skies this spring time, having been too far below our horizon in the night to see. Venus is of course well known for being the 2nd brightest object in the night sky (the moon being the 1st).
Venus is our “evil twin” planet. This is because it is similar in size but spins eerily in the opposite direction to the rest of the planets (and incredibly slowly – its day is longer than its year). Its thick atmosphere creates an excellent blanket to reflect light back at us – hence why it’s so bright! Planets always give out a flat light versus stars which twinkle in the sky.
On 12 April, Venus sits 3.7˚ northwest of a less than 1%-lit thin Moon which, at just 7.8˚ from the Sun, itself may be a tricky spot. Things improve as we head towards the end of the month, Venus’s brightness helping the planet stand out so that it can confidently be seen against the night sky.
At certain times of the year, the Earth on its orbit around the Sun moves into areas of cosmic dust often left behind by comets entering into the inner Solar System. As those dust particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere they burn up and create meteors or shooting stars in the night sky. The Lyrids meteor shower peaks on the evening of the 22nd of April and typically you can expect to see up to 20 meteors an hour. They get their name as they seem to originate from the constellation of Lyra which is in the east after Sunset. As the Moon will be in its New Moon phase, the shooting stars will be more visible without the moon’s light interrupting the view. Don’t worry if its cloudy on the 22nd, you can still see a flurry of meteors a few days before and after the peak.
Some Constellations To Look Out For!
As we come into Spring we have some brand new constellations to look out for, so why not get to know some of the main players? Hail Hydra! The first constellation you’ll want to look out for is the biggest constellation of them all, Hydra the water snake. All in all the constellation of Hydra measures at 1303 square degrees. It was originally part of the 48 constellations listed by Ptolemy in the 2nd Century. As I said last month, surprisingly, Hydra only contains one reasonably bright star and it is called Alphard, or Alpha Hydrae for you Bayer designation fans out there. Alphard means “solitary one,” in Arabic and is also known as the “backbone of the serpent.” Tycho Brahe, the famous Danish astronomer and bon vivant par excellence, also called this star Cor Hydræ, meaning the “heart of the snake.” Either way, they both sound pretty awesome. Alphard is an orange giant star about 50 times as wide as our Sun with an apparent magnitude of 2.0 at roughly 177 light years away from the Earth.
The constellation of Hydra has a couple of different stories woven into it. One of these stories associates the constellation with the monster Hydra, with its many heads. “Cut off one head and two more shall take its place”…sorry I went all Captain America there. Back to ancient mythology. Hercules was tasked in his twelve labours to kill the monstrous Hydra, and in order to do this he burned out the roots of the heads as he severed them, meaning none could grow back.
Another constellation to look out for is Virgo The Maiden. Virgo is the second largest constellation in the sky, and looks a little bit like a sun lounger. Virgo can be easily located through its brightest star Spica. Spica is the fifteenth brightest star in the night sky, and is actually a spectroscopic binary and rotating ellipsoidal variable, a system whose two main stars are so close together their mutual gravitational interaction has made them egg-shaped rather than spherical. The best way to find Spica is to follow the handle of the Plough (also known as the Big Dipper), and arc to Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Boötes. Once you reach Arcturus, you travel down in a straight line to Spica, you “spike” to Spica. In Latin, Spica means “ear of wheat,” and represents the grains that Virgo is always drawn holding.
Well that’s it for this month! Let us know what you see in the night sky!