Video courtesy NASA
This month provides an opportunity to see a meteor shower and three planets in the night sky.
The highlight will continue to be the chance to see Jupiter, which will shine brightly after being at opposition on March 8. Look to the south-southeast in the early evening, just after twilight; the solar system’s largest planet is in the constellation Leo. On April 17 you can see it moving with the waxing gibbous moon.
Mercury will become visible on April 8 as a fairly bright object with a -1 magnitude. The closest planet to the Sun passed its perihelion on April 5 and can be seen low in the western sky about 30 or 40 minutes after sunset. By April 18 Mercury will become quite a bit less bright, though it will be about 20 degrees east of the Sun by then. That makes it easier to see because it will be higher in the sky and will take longer to set. Whenever you observe the meteor shower, try to find a location away from any artificial lights.
You can best see Mars on or about April 24, when it reaches a magnitude of about -1.2 to -1.4. It will appear below the waxing gibbous moon as a yellowish-orange object. Look to the constellation Opheuchus to find Mars.
The Lyrid meteor shower peaks before dawn on April 22, but its annual visit corresponds with a full moon. However, the meteor shower starts on April 16, which might allow for some visibility of objects falling through the atmosphere before the full moon arrives.
This weekend offers a big payoff if you can drag yourself out of bed before dawn. For the first time in more than a decade it will be possible to see five planets in the sky.
It is best to go outside to see the planets between 30-60 minutes before sunrise.
Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter are visible in the eastern sky. Venus and Jupiter are the brightest of the five planets.
The moon will join the five planets in the sky on Jan. 28.
Mercury is closest to Earth, about 80 million miles away, while Saturn is more than one billion miles distant from our planet.
You do not need either a telescope or binoculars to see the celestial spectacle, which will remain available for your viewing pleasure until Feb. 10.
The night sky this month is a showcase of the solar system’s planets, with five of them available for your viewing before August arrives.
Venus and Saturn are visible in the evening sky all month, while Mars and Jupiter will present a fantastic image when they reach conjunction in the early morning sky on July 22. If you are an early riser, you’ll be able to see Mercury in the pre-dawn hours by late in the month.
Venus rises at dusk and will be visible until about one and one-half hours after sunset. Look for it in the western sky, above and to the right of the moon. As sunset approaches, Venus will drop lower than the moon on the horizon.
Saturn is high in the sky in the south-to-southwestern region of the heavens and is visible all night. Look for the constellations Libra and Virgo; Saturn will be between them. On July 15 and 16 the moon will appear very close to Saturn in the sky.
One way to find Saturn is to first locate the Big Dipper. Follow the stars that make up the “handle” to its end, until you locate Spica. Then look above and to the left of Spica to find Saturn.
If you have the opportunity to look through one at an observatory or skywatching event, take advantage of it. You will be able to see Saturn’s rings and some of its moons, including Titan.
Saturn will remain visible in the evening sky until late September or early October.
Jupiter and Mars can be seen in the early morning sky, after dawn, now that both planets are beyond at least some of the sun’s dawn glare. If you are in the United States, look for the solar system’s largest planet to rise about an hour before the sun does.
Mars is obscured by Jupiter to some extent because Jupiter reflects substantially more light from the sun. However, you can see the Red Planet above Jupiter if you look through binoculars until July 22. After that date Jupiter will be the higher of the two planets. Jupiter and Mars will appear in the same binocular field of vision.
The best opportunity to see Jupiter and Mars will occur on July 22. That is the day on which the two planets will appear to be aligned in the heavens. Of course, that is an optical illusion. Jupiter and Mars are separated by about 3.7 astronomical units, or 555 million kilometers!
When you go out to look at Jupiter and Mars, don’t forget your telescope. With it you should be able to see at least some of the four largest moons of Jupiter – Callisto, Europa, Ganymede, and Io.
Mercury will be apparent in the sky toward the end of the month during the early morning. To find it, first locate Jupiter and Mars. Remember: At the end of the month Jupiter will appear above Mars in your field of vision when you look to the eastern sky. If you look below Mars, and just a bit to the left, you should be able to see Mercury a little bit above the horizon.
You don’t have much time to see Mercury. Because it is the planet closest to the sun, it does not rise far above the horizon and it appears in the pre-dawn sky for only a short part of the year. This year you can say goodbye to the opportunity to see it by about the end of the second week of August.
This image of Saturn, obtained by the Voyager 2 spacecraft on July 21, 1981, shows cloud patterns in the planet’s northern hemisphere and the moons Rhea and Dione (blue dots to the south and southeast of Saturn). Image courtesy NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory.