Heads UP! for April 2010

My wife, Carol, says I make this stuff up about what you can see in the sky.  Really, I don’t write fiction that well (or I could quit my day job-not that I want to!).  But last night, after I pointed out Venus, shimmering low in the western sky, she followed my directions and spotted Mercury, a bit to the lower right of Venus.  Mercury was hard to pick out about 7:35, but was easy to see by 8pm.  Carol was impressed, so now you have no excuse – any one of the next few evenings, you can add Mercury to the list of things you have seen for yourself in your lifetime.   After you spot Mercury, take a minute and see how different they look.  Yes, Venus is brighter, but that’s not all.  Mercury is a different, dustier shade of white.  Venus is covered with reflective clouds, it’s larger and closer to us, so it is a silvery white.  Mercury is a rocky planet that would look gray and brownish if you got close enough.    See what you can pick up – just with your two unaided eyes!

April is going to be a good month for all kinds of observers.  Observers from southern California to Montana may see a bright star wink out for up to a few seconds as a tiny, too-faint-to-see asteroid passes in front of it.  The star is one that is easy to see without optical aid.  That’ll happen about 3:30 in the morning on April 6th.  Check Sky and Telescope’s web site for details if you are out west that morning.

Mars, slightly reddish and high up in the evening sky, is getting too small to see much detail even in telescopes.  But follow Mars in your binoculars this month as it passes by the Beehive cluster of stars.  It should be a pretty sight and your binoculars will give the best view anyone can get of this scene.  The ‘bees’ may get washed out and harder to find when the moon comes by on the 21st.  Later this month, Venus will be hanging with her sisters, the Pleiades.  The moon visits them about mid-month.  The Earthshine on the crescent moon is something that I never tire of seeing.   These are all great sights in binoculars.

The best telescopic sight this month is Saturn.  Its rings are narrow, but easy in any telescope.  Use higher magnification to bring out the rings.  Most nights, Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is a faint dot nearby.

The International Space Station is visible as it flies over our area during the morning twilight from April 5th through April 28th.  Then the ISS is an evening twilight event from April 28th to May 18th.  Check heavens-above.com for updated times and dates.  The next launch of the Space Transportation System is planned for Monday morning, April 5th.   The Shuttle Discovery will be bringing thousands of pounds of scientific experiment racks and supplies to the Station.  Today, three new crew members are being delivered via the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, now that the Shuttle is being retired; this is the only way to bring people to the ISS for now.

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