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Star Charts


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April 2018

After Sunset

After many long months without planets to see before midnight, we can welcome “evening star” Venus back to our night sky. Look for the brilliant planet low in the west as the sky begins to darken. It will become easier to find as the weeks go on, and will stay in our evening skies through the autumn.

Look low to the west for our last glimpses of winter constellations. Orion the Hunter stands out early in the month, but will be lost in the glow of sunset by May. Follow Orion’s belt to the left to find the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, in Canis Major the Big Dog. Follow the belt stars to the right to find orange star Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull.

Draw a line from Orion’s blue-colored foot Rigel up through Betelgeuse, and keep on going until you run into Gemini the Twins. The bright stars Castor and Pollux mark the heads of the twins. Under dark skies you may just be able to pick out two stick-figure bodies leading back towards Orion.

Look high in the north for the Big Dipper. As famous as the Dipper is, it’s not always easily visible from our latitude in Tennessee. During the autumn, it stays hidden near the northern horizon, only to emerge in the wee hours of the morning. But in the spring, the Dipper is easy to find.

The Big Dipper is not officially a constellation; it’s what astronomers sometimes call an asterism. The Big Dipper is a familiar name for this pattern of stars, especially known to observers in the United States, but it’s not one of the 88 constellations recognized by astronomers worldwide. Ursa Major the Great Bearis the official constellation here, but you’ll need dark skies to see its fainter stars.

Imagine poking a hole in the bottom of the Dipper to let the water drip out. The water falls onto the back of Leo the Lion. The head and mane of the lion are represented by a group of stars that looks something like a backwards question mark. Other stargazers imagine the top hook of a coat hanger, or a sickle in this group of stars. The “dot” at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus, the brightest star in Leo. It marks the regal heart of the lion.

Return to the Dipper, and use the two stars at the end of the bowl to lead you to Polaris, also known as the North Star. Polaris is not a particularly bright star, but it does remain fixed in the sky throughout the night and throughout the year, When you face the North Star, you’re facing due north.

Go back to the Dipper once more and follow its curved handle to trace an ‘arc’ to Arcturus, the orange colored star in Boötes the Herdsman. Then speed on to Spica, the single bright star in Virgo the Maiden. Neither of these constellations has any other bright stars. Even under dark skies away from city lights, it’s hard to imagine these mythological figures just by connecting the dots.

Stay Up Late

Stay out past midnight to see brilliant planet Jupiter rising in the southeast. It will form a large triangle shape, along Arcturus and Spica. A close look with steady binoculars or a small telescope reveals Jupiter’s largest moons, and even the giant planet’s cloud bands. Jupiter will be up much earlier come late spring. Look for the Moon near Jupiter on the morning of April 3, and again on April 30.

A Look Ahead

As Earth orbits the Sun throughout the year, the constellations rise and set just a little bit earlier every day. You won’t see much difference from night to night, but you will over the course of weeks or months. What we see in today’s pre-dawn sky is a preview of the early evening sky in later months. Go out before dawn this month for a look ahead at the summer evening sky.

Look to southeast around 3 or 4 in the morning for Mars and Saturn. These two start the month close to each other, but over the followoing weeks, Mars will gradually drift eastward relative to Saturn. Both planets will be high in the south just before sunrise. Look for the Moon near them on the morning of the 7th.

Mars appears not far away from its rival Antares in Scorpius the Scorpion. Antares is a red supergiant star. Its brightness and color led to its ancient name, meaning “anti-Ares.” Ares is the Greek name for the Roman god Mars. So as you watch this part of the sky, make sure you know which one is Mars, and which one is Not-Mars!

Mars is heading towards a close approach with Earth this summer. It will gradually get brighter, reaching maximum brightness around the end of July. By that time it will be in our evening skies, just rising as the Sun sets. It will be close enough that small telescopes may be able to reveal usually hard-to-see surface features like the polar ice caps.

As long as you’re stargazing before sunrise, take a look high in the east for the three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle. We’ll see a lot more of Vega, Altair, and Deneb as they rise much earlier in the summer months.

800 Fort Negley Blvd. Nashville, TN 37203
Hours: 10:00am - 5:00pm
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