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Starwatch April 2013

March 19, 2013


Comet Pan-STARRS.

Comet Pan-STARRS graced the western sky during mid-March. Photo: NASA

By Deane Morrison

The lion may seem a more suitable symbol for March, but it's in April that Leo makes its best showing. And this year so does Saturn.

Look high in the south during the mid-evening hours and you're sure to spot the majestic form of Leo, with its head outlined by the backward question mark of stars known as the Sickle. Leo's tail ends with the constellation's second-brightest star, Denebola, at the point of a triangle of stars east of the Sickle. Anchoring the Sickle is Leo's brightest star, Regulus.

West of Leo, about halfway to the Gemini twins, you may see the faint Beehive star cluster, in Cancer. Below Cancer is the serpentine head—one of them—of the multiheaded monster Hydra, slain by Hercules.

East of Denebola, binoculars may pick up the rather diffuse scattering of stars called Coma Berenices, or Berenice's Hair. It is named for Queen Berenice II of Egypt, who promised the goddess Aphrodite she would sacrifice her hair if her husband, Ptolemy III Euergetes, returned safely from a war expedition. He did, she cut her hair, she put it in Aphrodite's temple, and either somebody stole it from there or the admiring goddess placed it in the heavens. 

This is the best time this year to see Saturn. The ringed planet reaches opposition on the 28th, when Earth laps it in the orbital race. At that time it appears directly opposite the sun in the sky, so it rises in the east around sunset and stays up all night. Its rings are tilted about 18 degrees from horizontal, and it'll be at its brightest in five years. Compare its brightness to that of Arcturus, the star almost directly to its north. The bright star west of Saturn is Spica, in Virgo.

Meanwhile, in the west, Jupiter starts out fairly high but ends the month being drawn into the sun's afterglow. See if you can spot Jupiter and Saturn across the sky from each other around mid-month. On the 13th and 14th, a waxing crescent moon visits first the Hyades star cluster of Taurus and then Jupiter.

April's full moon was known to Algonquin Indians by several names: the full pink moon, for the carpet of flowering ground phlox that appears in early spring; 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. The moon reaches perfect fullness at 2:57 p.m. on the 25th, rises shortly after sunset, and travels the night sky in company with Saturn.

The Lyrid meteor shower peaks around 7 a.m. on the 22nd. Meteors will radiate from the east, between the constellations Lyra and Hercules, which will be in the south in the predawn sky. If you get up an hour or two before daybreak, you should have a moonless sky to watch for meteors. 

The night of April 30-May 1 ushers in an old Celtic holiday called Beltane, one of four cross-quarter days falling midway between an equinox and a solstice. Beltane marked the start of the light half of the year. At sunrise on that day, the nasty spirits that had tormented humankind all winter were banished for six months—until Halloween.

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, Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics (during fall and spring semesters): www.astro.umn.edu/outreach/pubnight

Check out the astronomy programs at the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum ExploraDome: www.bellmuseum.umn.edu/ForGroups/ExploraDome/index.htm

3/21/13 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