Star Charts

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Star Charts

April 2020

DOWNLOADABLE STAR CHART

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After Sunset

The first bright point you’ll see as the sky begins to darken is the planet Venus. Like the other planets, Venus does not produce its own light, but reflects the light of the Sun — and its clouds are highly reflective. It will be visible in the early evening sky through mid-May. Look for a crescent Moon near Venus on the evening of April 26.

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 Big Dipper. Under dark skies most people can see six stars, but under excellent conditions people with excellent eyesight can see seven. Watch for a wonderful sight on the evenings of April 2 and 3: Venus will appear very close to the Pleiades. Venus might outshine the star cluster, so grab a pair of binoculars for a better look. Along with Venus, you may see dozens of stars in the Pleiades!

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. Under dark skies you may just be able to pick out two stick-figure bodies leading back towards Orion.

Consider Betelgeuse for a moment to take in a bit of a cosmic mystery. It’s a red supergiant star almost 2,000 times the diameter of our own Sun. It’s also a variable star, meaning that it gradually changes its size and brightness over time. Starting in October of last year it began to fade far more than usual, down to a third of its normal brightness. Usually the brightest star in Orion, it became fainter than Orion’s other shoulder star, Bellatrix. The difference wass quite noticable to frequent stargazers. In the past few weeks it has started to brighten again, and as of this writing it’s now a little more than half its typical brightness.

Betelgeuse is also well-known for being close to the end of its life, ready to go supernova. Astronomers estimate that it may have another 100,000 years left. That may seem like a long time for us to wait, but it’s a blink of an eye in cosmic time. Although the star’s sudden dimming is intriguing, there’s not much evidence that a big explosion is imminent.

From Dark Skies

Bright outdoor lighting can make it hard to see all but the brightest stars. 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. A quartet of young stars near the center are 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.

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.

By morning, our winter constellations have set in the west, and even Leo the Lion is setting along the western horizon. High overhead 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 towards the southeast for Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter. Jupiter is the brightest of the three, and appears above and to the right of Saturn. On April 1, Mars is just below but very close to Saturn. Each night, Mars pulls further away from Saturn. As the weeks progress, Jupiter and Saturn will rise earlier and earlier, on their way to becoming a great evening sight during the summer. Mars will return to evening skies in the autumn. Watch for the Moon to visit these three planets on the mornings of April 14-16.

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

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