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Starwatch April 2011

March 16, 2011


By Deane Morrison

The lion doesn't sleep tonight—provided the lion is the constellation Leo. During April Leo prances high in the south after sunset, as if chasing away the winter stars toward the west.

Spotting Leo is easy, thanks to the Sickle of stars outlining the lion's head. Framing the lion are two lovely star clusters: the Beehive to the west and Coma Berenices, or Berenice's Hair, to the east. Both are visible to the naked eye, but it takes a pair of binoculars to bring out their beauty to the fullest. 

A golden jewel in Virgo, Saturn trails Leo to the southeast. On the 3rd Saturn reaches opposition—the point where it is 180 degrees from the sun, as seen from Earth—and it will be up all night. Its glory rivals that of brilliant Arcturus, now shining northeast of the ringed planet.

Venus ornaments the predawn sky, but our lovely sister planet is slowly sinking into the sun's foreglow. Try looking for it on the 1st, when an old crescent moon keeps company with Venus above the eastern horizon.

Late in the month, Mercury, Mars and Jupiter congregate near Venus but will be so low they'll be hard to see. On the 30th, another old waning moon sits above Venus, the highest and brightest of the bunch—and in fact the only one that may be visible. But in the coming months, Mars, and especially Jupiter, will start lifting high enough to spot easily. 

Algonquin Indians called April's full moon the pink moon, for the carpet of flowering ground phlox that appears in early spring. It was also known as the full sprouting grass moon, the egg moon, and, in coastal areas, the full fish moon, as mid-April was the time of the shad spawning runs. This moon rises at about 8 p.m. on the 17th, less than two hours before reaching exact fullness. That means it will be quite round when it peeks over the horizon.

The night of April 30-May 1 was the Celtic feast of Beltane, one of four cross-quarter days falling midway between an equinox and a solstice. This was a witches' Sabbath—the night when evil spirits had a last fling before the light half of the year began and they were banished until Halloween. It was immortalized in Modest Mussorgsky's orchestral fantasy "Night on Bald Mountain."

The University of Minnesota offers public viewings of the night sky at its Duluth and Twin Cities campuses. For more information and viewing schedules, see:

Duluth, Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium: www.d.umn.edu/planet

Twin Cities, Department of Astronomy (during fall and spring semesters): www.astro.umn.edu/outreach/pubnight

3/21/11 Contact: Deane Morrison, University Relations, (612) 624-2346, morri029@umn.edu

Find U of M astronomers and links to the world of astronomy at http://www.astro.umn.edu.

Tags: College of Science and Engineering

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Star map: white on black

Star map: black on white