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The sky in April 2020 — the changing of the stellar guard

This April begins with an outstanding show in the Marshall early evening lower western sky! From April 1st to the 5th, the bright planet Venus, the brightest star-like object in the night sky, is going to travel from west to east across the Pleiades, the best and brightest star cluster in the heavens. To the naked eye the Pleiades resembles a tiny Big Dipper. On April 3, Venus will be right in the thick of the cluster sometimes referred to as the Seven Little Sisters, the daughters of the god Atlas. It’s something you don’t want to miss! You can certainly see this with unaided eyes, but binoculars or a small telescope can make it extra sweet! You’ll see many more of the fainter stars in the Pleiades, and Venus will appear in the shape of a half-moon. Venus will be less than 53 million miles away, but the Pleiades are over 400 light-years away. Just one light- equals almost 6 trillion miles!

April evenings are a little more comfortable for stargazers, but there are tradeoffs. With the later sunsets it’s also a later start for your stargazing. Another tradeoff is that the winter constellations, the best and brightest in my opinion, are heading for the celestial exits. As April progresses, the mighty constellation Orion the Hunter and his gang of bright constellations begin evenings lower and lower in the western sky. Eventually, they’ll disappear entirely from the evening sky until late next autumn.

The spring constellations are not as flashy, but they possess many celestial treasures. You just have to dig a little deeper for them. In the high southeastern sky look for a backward question mark that outlines the head and chest of the constellation Leo the Lion. The moderately bright star Regulus marks the “period” of the question mark. To the lower left of Regulus is a small but distinct triangle that makes up the lion’s rear and tail. Much lower in the southeast sky is the small but distinct constellation Corvus the Crow. Look for a lopsided diamond hovering just above the horizon. It looks nothing like a crow, but it’s still one of my favorite constellations.

The Big Dipper climbs higher and higher in the northeastern sky this month and is also gradually turning upside down. The Big Dipper is not an official constellation, but what’s called an asterism that outlines the rear end and the tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear. The Big Dipper is the brightest part of the beast.

Use the two “pointer stars” that make up the side of the Big Dipper’s pot opposite the handle to find Polaris, the North Star. Polaris is about three fist-widths at arm’s length down and to the left from the pointer stars. Polaris holds court at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper, otherwise known as Ursa Minor, the Little Bear.

Over in the lower eastern sky there’s a sideways kite on the rise. It’s the constellation Bootes, which, according to Greek mythology, is supposed to be a farmer hunting down neighboring Ursa Major, the Big Bear. At the tail of the kite is the super bright star Arcturus, with a distinct orange hue to it. If you extend the arc made by the Big Dipper’s handle beyond the end of the handle, you’ll run right into Arcturus. Just remember the old saying, “Arc to Arcturus.”

In the early morning predawn southeastern sky there’s an entertaining planet show going on featuring Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Jupiter is the brightest of the trio. On April 1 and 2, just before twilight, Saturn and Mars will be practically “touching” with Jupiter to the upper right of them.

Don’t miss it!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and at  adventurepublications.net. Contact Mike Lynch at  mikewlynch@comcast.net.

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