Stargazing: This month’s night sky

April 2021

Although the hours of darkness are lessening here in the Northern Hemisphere, there’s still opportunities to do lots of stargazing, particularly this month, as we not only get to see the spring constellations but will have the chance to enjoy the annual show that is the Lyrid meteor shower.

Stars 

This month, the familiar shape of the Plough is high overhead. While not a constellation itself, (instead it is an “asterism”, part of a constellation) the Plough, or Big Dipper, is one of the most famous groups of stars in the sky, and has been important throughout history as a guide to finding North. The full constellation can only be seen in the Northern Hemisphere, where it is visible all year round. The seven stars that make the Plough are the brightest stars in the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Interestingly, this constellation has been seen as a bear in many civilisations across the world and this idea could date back as far as 13,000 years.


Above: Looking straight up at 1:00am, 15th April 2021.
Left: The Plough makes up the tail and part of the back of the Great Bear. 

To use the Plough to find Polaris, the North Star, imagine a line joining up two stars at the front of the Plough (as shown below left) and following the line upwards to the next bright star. This is the North Star and is the only star that does not appear to move across the sky during the night, as the Earth turns.

The Plough can also be used to help find other stars visible during the spring, such as Arcturus, in the constellation of Boötes, the Herdsman and Spica, in the constellation of Virgo, the maiden.

Arcturus is a very bright, orange-hued star, whilst Spica appears bright blue. Find them by remembering the phrase “Arc to Arcturus and Speed on to Spica”. As shown below right, follow the arc of the handle of the Plough down towards the horizon – you’ll reach Arcturus first, then Spica much lower down. The constellation Virgo is a clear sign that spring has arrived!

The two pointing stars used to find Polaris are joined with a red line, with the extended line shown as the dashed line. The rest of the Plough is shown in blue.

Looking directly up at 1:00am, 15th April 2021.

The “arc” of the handle is created with red lines, with the extended line shown as the dashed line. The rest of the Plough is shown in blue.

Looking directly up at 1:00am, 15th April 2021.

Meteors 

Meteoroid, meteor or meteorite? The names around meteors can be rather confusing! The bright streak of light that we know as a “shooting star” is the meteor; the particle of debris that causes it is called a meteoroid and if some of the meteoroid survives the fall and lands on the Earth it’s called a meteorite. When meteor showers occur the streaks of light seem to be coming from a particular point (or constellation) in the sky – called the “radiant” – this is what gives a meteor shower its name.

April is time to try and spot the Lyrid meteor shower. The Lyrids are some of the easiest to spot meteors of the year. The best night to try and see them will be the 22nd April, where we may see up to 20 meteors per hour, but you may catch a glimpse of some from the 16th and as late as the 25th. The radiant point is near to the constellation of Lyra, the Lyre, which includes the bright star Vega.

Meteor showers have a special place in Jodrell Bank history. When Bernard Lovell came to the site in December 1945 his first experiments involved using ex-army radar equipment with which he detected echoes from the trails of meteors. Alongside amateur astronomer Manning Prentice and colleagues C.J Banwell, J.A Clegg and V.A. Hughes, Lovell observed the Perseids in July and August 1946, the great Giacobinid meteor storm of October 1946 and in the summer of 1947, discovered previously unknown meteor showers taking place in the daytime. These meteor studies formed the major part of Jodrell Bank’s earliest research in astronomy.

Planets

Mars is still visible in the evening sky, during April. Look towards the West after sunset for a bright, orange-tinged object. Venus remains very tricky to see this month, but if you happen to live somewhere with a good view of the Western horizon, you may catch a glimpse of it after sunset at the end of the month. On the 17th of April, the crescent Moon will make a close pass to Mars and in fact a lunar occultation of Mars (where the Moon passes directly in front of Mars) will be visible from South East Asia.

Jupiter and Saturn will appear in the morning skies, being visible low on the horizon until they can no longer be seen in the bright daytime sky. Look between East and South-East to spot them. They will be close together, Jupiter, the brighter of the two, on the left, and Saturn on the right. Remember that as the hours of daylight get longer, you will have to get up earlier to see them! By the end of the month, the Sun will rise at 5:30am BST.

The Moon

Third Quarter 4th April
New Moon 12th April
First Quarter 20th April
Full Moon 27th April

Spacecraft

There are a number of launches taking place this month that will be taking astronauts and cosmonauts to the International Space Station!

“Astronaut” comes from the Greek “astron” for star and “nautes” for sailor. But people going to space from Russia use the word “cosmonaut”, which uses the Russian “kosmos” meaning Universe. Chinese space-goers are called “taikonauts” from the Mandarin “tàikōng” which means space.

Mark Vande Hei of NASA and Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov of Roscosmos will begin Expedition 65 to the International Space Station on Friday 9th of April, where they will join the four other astronauts who will be working on the same mission, Shannon Walker, who will be the commander of the mission, NASA astronauts Michael S. Hopkins and Victor J. Glover, as well as JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi.

It will be rather crowded on the International Space Station for a few days! Cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov as well as NASA astronaut Kathleen Rubins are also currently in space, making a total crew of 10 who will be working on Expedition 64 until it comes to a close on the 18th of April, when Kathleen, Sergey and Sergey will depart.

On April 22nd SpaceX Crew-2 mission is scheduled to launch, bringing JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and K. Megan McArthur and ESA Thomas Pesquet, bringing the crew to a total of 11!

There are typically around 6 astronauts aboard the ISS at any given time, so it will be quite busy up there this month!

Click here to find out times to view the ISS from your location.

Happy Stargazing! #WatchTheSkies

 

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Collins 2021 Guide to the Night Sky
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