Heads UP! for April 2013

You haven’t seen Comet PanSTARRS yet!? You are not alone. I did finally find it on March 27th, after despairing over cloudy evenings and desperately peering into murky evening twilight on several occasions before that. If you want to see the comet, find someone who has seen it or check out websites that have good instructions for finding it, like AstroBob in Duluth (not related), or SpaceWeather.com. About an hour after sunset, find a location with a clear northwestern horizon, about 30 degrees to the right of where the sun set. Scan the sky near the northwestern horizon, with binoculars. Binoculars give a wide view of the sky and make the search easier. Look for a fuzzy star that looks like it has a faint spray of light to its upper right.

But, easier-to-find objects are available every month and this one is no different. Everyone notices Jupiter, high in the southwest. Find Jupiter and look nearby for the V-shaped Hyades and the tiny dipper-shaped Pleiades. Saturn is waiting its turn to rule the post-twilight skies in April and May. We make our annual closest approach to Saturn late this month, ‘only’ 800 million miles away. It takes a telescope to tell it’s a ringed planet, but people are always amazed that they can see the rings for themselves, despite how tiny the planet may look, even in a telescope.

Venus is in the solar glare most of the month, along with Mars and Uranus. But you can use the SOHO solar observing spacecraft’s cameras to see them. At their web site, click on the C3 camera, which in addition to showing solar coronal mass discharges, shows the dim stars behind the Sun in the sky, allowing you to observe next to the Sun with no threat to your eyesight. Venus and Mars are obvious to see, overwhelming SOHO’s camera. For Uranus, you’ll need a chart with the latest positions of the planet to find it.

Here’s a set of photos I downloaded from the SOHO gallery page with the planets back on March 22nd. First, here’s a map of where the planets are from the Cartes du Ciel planetarium program:
:planetarium soho field 2013 03 22
Here’s the photo from SOHO C3:
soho c3 2013 03 22 1130

The position of the Sun is marked by the center white circle. To the lower right of the Sun is Venus, overpowering the detector. To the left is Mars. When this photo was taken, Uranus was in conjunction with Mars – it’s the tiny dot next to Mars in these magnified sections of two SOHO C3 photos taken 11 hours apart on March 22nd. Mars passes by more distant Uranus between these two photos.

soho c3 2013 03 22 1130 mars uranus

soho c3 2013 03 22 2230 mars uranus
The ring-like effect (more pronounced for Venus’ image), is from the brightness of Mars spilling out from its image into adjoining bins in the camera pixels.

Back to the rest of the sky…..
Mercury is low in the morning sky, a hard to find binocular object. Surprisingly, it’s the closest planet to Earth, and has been since the beginning of the year and will be through late August.

On the 24th, the Moon is right next to the first magnitude star Spica, drowning it in a puddle of Moonlight. But other Moon scenes can be photogenic. Can you get your camera to take photos of the sky? Most times, the Moon overwhelms the fainter star clusters nearby, but on the 13th and 14th, the Moon’s thinner crescent phase allows the clusters to shine through, and with bright Jupiter nearby, it’s a good time to see if you camera can catch a sky scene. A fuller, brighter Moon makes a dot at the bottom of the backwards question mark of the lion’s head in Leo on the 20th.

The International Space Station passes through the dawn sky through the 6th and during dusk from 6th through the 26th. Tiangong 1 is an evening flyer from the 4th through 17th. Can you find times when the ISS and the Chinese space station will be in the sky at the same time? See websites like heavens-above.com for updated times when you can see them.

You can copy this Heads UP! for your use, and if you publish it elsewhere, give credit to Bob Kelly at bkellysky.wordpress.com

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