Heads UP! for April 2020


I’m late getting Heads UP! out. I was so taken by the Venus/Pleiades conjunction and the morning planet show, I focused on writing about those events early in the month and seeing them for myself. Also, there’s this virus thing that’s been a bit distracting.

Fuller Moon

On April 7th, the April Full Moon is the closest of the year, with perigee only eight hours before Full Moon.  According to NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio’s Dial-a-Moon at https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4768, April’s Full Moon is 216 miles closer than March’s.  Once again, watch out for higher than normal tides around the date of the Full Moon. 

Venus Goes Bowling

Did you see Venus bowling along the edge of the dipper-shaped Pleiades cluster on the 3rd, just missing a strike?  Photographers were challenged to capture the almost eight-magnitude difference between the sublime setting of young stars with a planet over 600 times brighter (and four billion years older).

Venus below the dipper-shaped Pleiades.
The V-shaped Hyades cluster looks more like a bowling alley pin set up.
Watch for Venus in the Hyades cluster, in early July. It’ll be low in the east, in the morning sky.

It was wonderful in binoculars for us human viewers.

Later in April, the Moon lines up with Venus on the 26th, hanging out above the rapidly sinking Hyades and Pleiades clusters.  This is a sight worth finding a clear western horizon to view. 

Venus Comes In for Her Close-up

Aim a telescope at Venus anytime this month and note its waning phase. The second planet from the Sun has its greatest illuminated extent on the 27th, coming around the corner toward Earth, blazing at magnitude -4.7 despite doing its impression of a crescent Moon. See for yourself if it’s a good impression! You might find sunglasses or sky-darkening filters helpful to find Venus in daylight. (Careful! Hide the Sun out of view!) A bright sky or good filters will help detect the crescent shape. Venus’ angular distance from the Sun sharply decreases from 45 degrees to 30 in April.

Venus at half-phase last month.

Morning Scene

Jupiter and Saturn give Mars the slip in the morning sky, taking off toward the south-southeast. Our Moon joins the planet party in the wee hours at mid-month for wonderful photo-ops from the 14th through 16th.

Use Jupiter as a Pointer

Jupiter is at quadrature, getting sideways with the Earth. Shadows of Jupiter’s moons are furthest from where we see the moons, making the Jupiter-scene look very three dimensional.

Use Jupiter as a pointer to Pluto! From now through mid-April, Jupiter and Pluto will appear less than two degrees (but 17 magnitudes) apart. They are closest on the 9th at a half-degree apart. The New Horizons spacecraft is to the upper right in Sagittarius’ ‘teaspoon’.

This is a good time to compare the diameters of Mars, Saturn and Jupiter in a telescope. Jupiter appears six times wider than Mars, and Saturn half as wide as Jupiter (not counting the rings).

Mercury: Playing Hard to Find

Mercury will stay low in the morning twilight. At 15 degrees from the Sun and brightness increasing through magnitude -1, Mercury should be easy to find. But it’s in the southern part of the ecliptic and at its maximum distance south of the ecliptic, so it about as hard to find for northern hemispheric observers as it gets.

Comet Crumbs

The very minor Lyrids meteor shower peaks on the morning of the 22nd. Lyrids are mostly faint meteors, totaling less than 20 per hour at its peak. It’s a dark night due to little moonlight, so you might notice some glowing grains left over from Comet Thatcher (C/1861 G1), a comet with a period of over 200 years.  


A big rock 52768 (1998 OR2) will pass 1.4 million miles from Earth on the 29th. It’s about two miles wide. 1998 OR2 will be visible low in the evening sky in Hydra at magnitude +10 or 11. It will continue to loop through the inner solar system, passing across Earth’s orbit every 3 2/3 years.


Some big snowballs are swooping through the inner solar system.  Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) is reported to be brightening through 9th magnitude in Camelopardis. It has the potential to be viewable with the unaided eye in late May, but it will be very close to the Sun then. It’s following the orbit of the Great Comet of 1844/5 and might be a chip off that block.

C/2019 Y1 (ATLAS) is in Andromeda, where it may peak at 9th magnitude.  C/2017 T2 (PANSTARRS) floats into Camelopardis from Cassiopeia.  It may peak at magnitude 8. It’s further from the Sun than the Earth, so it stays well out of the solar glare.


A sunspot was seen on the Sun last month. Okay, there were more, but we remain in the sunspot minimum with many days without visible sunspots. Statistical models predict sunspot numbers should increase in 2020, but data used for some dynamical models aren’t promising increasing solar spottiness soon. Aurora are still being seen. Chinks in the Earth’s magnetic armor occasionally let streams of energetic particles into our upper atmosphere to light up far northern (and southern) skies.

Overflights of the International Space Station

Visible from the northeastern United States in the evening sky through the 6th and start morning twilight overflights on the 23rd. See heavens-above.com or NASA for times and location on those dates.

SOHO Views

Uranus might be visible moving against the background stars in the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory’s field of view when passing through conjunction with the Sun on the 26th. Mercury passes Uranus on April 30th/1st of May on its way toward solar conjunction on the far side of the Sun in May.

Photos from Tuesday: Venus with Pleiades; Moon. What can you see Friday and Saturday?

The cloudy weather forecasted for the NYC metro area is happening as expected. A humongous storm off the coast of the northeastern United States is tossing off arms of clouds and rain in New England, with less rain and wind further south.

From NOAA weather satellite site.

So, I was fortunate to have some time Tuesday evening to catch Venus sneaking up on the Seven Sisters and get a photo or two of the first quarter “Dave” moon. Areas of the country with breaks in the clouds or clear skies will have a chance to see Venus scoot just under the Pleiades on Friday the 3rd and appear to stop just ahead of that dipperish formation on Saturday. For links to information on the Venus/Pleiades encounter, see the previous post: Tonight’s the Night for Venus .

On to a photo album from Tuesday evening.

Wide-angle photo showing where Venus (brightest dot), the Pleiades star cluster (just above Venus) and the Hyades cluster (the ‘V’ to the left) are in the evening sky. The human eye would notice amazingly bright Venus, with the Pleiades looking like a little ‘little dipper’ nearby and the ‘V’ of the Hyades cluster to the left. As the sky darkens, you’ll be able to see these clusters.
Canon XS on tripod 50mm lens at f/2, ISO800 for five seconds.
Note: Reddish Aldebaran at the top of the left side of the ‘V’ is not a member of the Hyades cluster. It’s just hanging out there, just by chance it completes the ‘V’. At least, from Earth’s point of view.

Venus and the Pleiades as they would look in binoculars or a wide-field telescope.
Venus is half-lit, just like the first quarter Moon, but it’s so bright in this longer exposure we can’t see it. In a twilight sky, with some more magnification, the half-phase is tiny, but noticeable.
Canon XS on tripod, 250mm lens at f/5.6 and ISO1600 for 2 1/2 seconds.

Thanks to Bob King for suggesting settings on cameras for getting this photos. I managed to get a shot of Venus last time it passed close to the Pleiades, eight years ago, but the camera settings are lost on some long-ago hard drive. Last night, I used the widest lens opening (f/5.6) for the 250mm maximum zoom on my camera lens. I set the camera for a sensitivity of 1600 ISO units, since that’s the fastest my Canon XS goes. I don’t usually use 1600 speed, since the photo can get very noisy. It’s worse when the camera is warmer. The Canon XS has a setting to take out noise at longer exposures like this. So I went for 1600.

Tuesday night’s first quarter Moon.
It reminds me of Galleio’s early drawings of the half-moon as seen through his telescope, due to the large crater Clavus (at bottom) extending into the night side of the Moon.
Cropped from larger photo with Canon XS on tripod 250mm zoom lens at f/7.1 (‘slower’, but more detail), 1/100 second at ISO 200. I don’t think I’ve captured more details on the Moon with just the zoom lens on this camera before. Just a good focus and lots of craters on the terminator. The brighter part of the Moon is a bit washed out since the Sun is higher in the sky there.
iPhone7 photo with NightCap app at the 50mm eyepiece of a Orion dobsonian 200mm wide telescope. Equivalent ISO200, f/1.8, with the 3.99mm focal length iPhone lens at 1/1000 second.
Cropped and flipped to match the view in the Canon camera.

Compare this photo of the Moon through the telescope with the one above it from the camera. I was only using a 24 power eyepiece, since it was there so I could fit the view of the Pleiades in my telescope. Anything more powerful, and only a few of the Seven Sister fit in the telescopic view. I attached my Celestron cell phone attachment and took a shot. Not bad, even though I should practice more with the adapter in the daytime when I can see what I’m doing.

Here’s a map of the Moon for Tuesday evening with some of the craters labeled.

IDL TIFF file from Systems Visualization Laboratory converted to jpeg.

Finally, an iPhone7 photo with the NightCap app. Very noisy, but shows a wider view than the other photos, like the view you can have without optical aid.

Taken with NightCap.
Equivalent f/1.8, ISO7040 for 1/4 second with the iPhone’s 3.99mm lens.
Brightest dot at the treeline is Venus, with the Pleiades just visible just above it. Aldebaran is the next brightest star to Venus’ left.

See Guy Otteweel’s write up on how to enlarge photos on blogs – go to the bottom of the page on his blog.

Good luck to those favored with good skies tonight!

Tonight’s the Night for Venus?

In the northeastern United States, a deep storm forming off-shore may throw us some shade in the latter part of the week.  So, this evening Wednesday, April 1st, may be the best chance to see this.   There are many good descriptions of the upcoming encounter of blazing Venus and the sublime star cluster of the Pleiades.  (See links at the end of this note.)  If you have a forecast for clear skies later this week, they will be closest on Thursday and Friday. Here’s the view for Wednesday evening, April 1st in the western sky:

Sky about an hour and a half after sunset, about 1/3 the way up in the western sky.
Venus is four moon-widths below the Pleiades.

Tonight’s forecast into Thursday. . . http://www.cleardarksky.com/c/DrprPrkNYkey.html?1 Blue is mostly clear skies.

Here are forecast cloud cover maps for the rest of the week for the United States:

Your area might have clearer skies than I will. Extra credit to those who find this pairing in gaps in their cloud decks. Check updated forecasts at your friendly local National Weather Service site and for a forecast map: https://graphical.weather.gov/sectors/conus.php#tabs

Scott’s view: https://scottastronomy.wordpress.com/2020/03/30/the-moon-venus-and-the-pleiades/ and https://scottastronomy.wordpress.com/2020/04/01/venus-and-the-pleiades-april-2020/

Bob King in Duluth: http://astrobob.areavoices.com/2020/03/31/see-venus-glide-through-the-pleiades-on-april-3/

Great graphic of Venus passing through the Pleiades over the years (of course, it’s Guy!) https://www.universalworkshop.com/2020/04/02/pleiades-passage/

A great discussion at Earth and Sky: https://earthsky.org/tonight/venus-pleiades-couple-up-on-april-2-3-and-4

Venus in the afternoon – March 26 2020 encounter

I was looking for Venus in the daytime sky today. The sky was mostly blue with some scattered cirrus clouds.

Canon XS attached to 200mm Orion Dobsionian reflecting telescope
at prime focus 1/640 second, ISO 200.
Screenshot from MobileObservatory view of the southwestern sky at 4:15pm EDT from near New York City.

I scanned with binoculars and the 9×60 finder scope on the telescope. I found Venus with the finder scope, but did not see the new crescent Moon.

Here’s a screenshot of the data I used to find where Venus was in the daytime sky:

Planets line up in the morning twilight

Caught the morning planets lining up. Photo about 6:10am EDT. Mars not showing much color, even when I shot at lower ISOs. For context, the distance between them in our sky is about the width of your hand outstretched. Mars is continuing to move left, meeting up with Saturn on the 31st.

Canon XS on tripod 50mm lens at f/2 1/2 second exposure at ISO800.
A pretty good representation of what the human eye would see.
From left to right, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter.

Take a look for yourself any day, before sunrise, to the southeast, to the right of where the sun will rise.