Star Charts

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Star Charts

April 2021

After Sunset

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 high in the sky, easy to find.

You can use the stars of the Big Dipper to find Polaris, the North Star. Use the two stars at the end of the bowl of the Dipper to point you to Polaris. When you face Polaris, you’re facing due north.

Polaris is not a particularly bright star, but it does remain fixed in the sky throughout the night and throughout the year. Polaris is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. This group of stars is officially known as Ursa Minor the Little Bear. Similarly, the Big Dipper is just a part of the official constellation Ursa Major the Great Bear. You’ll need dark skies to see the great bear’s 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.

Follow the curved handle of the Big Dipper to trace the ‘arc’ to Arcturus, the orange colored star in Boötes the Herdsman. Then speed on to Spica, the single bright star in Virgo the Maiden, low in the southeast. 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.

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.

Keep going past Aldebaran in the same direction to find a beautiful cluster of stars known as the Pleiades. To some eyes it looks like a miniature version of the Little Dipper. Under dark skies most people can see six stars, but under excellent dark-sky conditions, people with good eyesight can see seven. With a small telescope or a pair of binoculars, you may see dozens! The Pleiades is an example of an open star cluster.

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

Don’t confuse red colored stars Betegeuse and Aldebaran for the red planet Mars. Mars starts the month between the horns of Taurus, quickly moving its way towards Gemini night after night. If you’re not sure which tiny red point of light is Mars, look to see if it’s twinkling. Stars twinkle, but planets don’t. Watch for a crescent Moon near Mars on April 16.

From Dark Skies

Bright outdoor lighting can make it hard to see all but the brightest stars. Even a bright Moon can make it difficult to see the fainter objects in the sky. On a clear night, find a dark spot far away from city lights, give your eyes time to adjust to the dark, and look for even more celestial sights.

Just beneath the belt of Orion is a faint patch of light that marks the hunter’s sword. This is M-42, the Great Orion Nebula. A small telescope can reveal the overall shape of the nebula, as well as a quartet of young stars near the center called the Trapezium. These stars formed out of the gas and dust of the nebula.

Look between the constellations Leo and Gemini to find... nothing? Even under dark skies you’ll have to look closely to spot the famous but faint constellation Cancer the Crab, shaped like an upside-down letter Y. Near the center of the Y is M-44, the Beehive Cluster. Like the Pleiades in Taurus, this open star cluster is a great target for binoculars.

Early Morning

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.

By morning, our winter constellations have long since set in the west, and even springtime constellation Leo the Lion has set. High in the east are the three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle. To the south is the J-shaped Scorpius the Scorpion, with the red star Antares.

Look low in the southeast for Saturn and Jupiter. Jupiter is the brighter of the two, and appears below and to the left of Saturn. Watch for the Moon near both planets on the morning of April 6. Jupiter and Saturn will return to early evening skies by August.

Desktop planetarium software like the free, open-source Stellarium can show you more precisely where night sky objects will be on any date and time, and help you plan your observing.

How Dark is Your Sky?

City lights make it difficult to experience the night sky at its best. Does excess light streaming into your window make it hard for you to sleep? Light pollution can disrupt wildlife in a similar way. Light pointing up into the sky is also a needless use of electricity. Better lights that just point downward still do the job we need them to do, but without all those side effects.

To spread understanding about light pollution, the week of April 5-12 has been named International Dark Sky Week.

Globe at Night is a monthly citizen science project to map the effects of light pollution around the world. Visit their web site for instructions on how to judge how dark your local sky is. In short, you’ll count the stars you can see in a particular constellation and report your reults online. In April, you’ll count stars in Leo the Lion. You may be surprised how much of the night sky you’re missing!