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The Sky This Week, 2019 March 26 - April 2

What lies behind the stars of spring?
Messier 65 and 66, galaxies in Leo.
Messier 65 (right) and 66, with NGC 3628 (top), galaxies in Leo
Imaged 2013 April 14 with an Antares Sentinel 80mm (3.1-inch) f/6 refractor
and a Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR from Morattico, Virginia.

The Moon scuttles above the southern horizon in the early morning skies this week, passing through the rising constellations of the summer sky.  Last Quarter occurs on the 28th at 12:10 am Eastern Daylight Time.  If you’re up before the Sun, look for the Moon just to the southeast of bright Jupiter on the morning of the 27th.  On the morning of the 29th she may be found southeast of Saturn.   Look for her slender crescent just south of bright Venus half an hour before sunrise on April 2nd, very low in the southeastern sky.                                                         

We are now at the time of year when the change in the length of daylight seems to be most apparent.  We gain about a minute and a half of daylight each morning, while tacking on another minute each evening.  Those of us who don’t like getting up in darkness (myself included) will have an easier time finding the morning paper or going for that morning walk.  During the course of the month of April we’ll add one hour and ten minutes of daylight to our waking hours, and while this cuts into nighttime observing activities, the spring sky offers a number of interesting targets to look at.  

With the Moon moving into the morning sky, it’s once again time for the monthly Globe at Night observing campaign.  This “citizen science” program encourages people to count the stars visible to them from whatever location they happen to be, and the information helps scientists understand the global effects of artificial lighting on our night sky.  Last month the featured constellation was Orion, which was a great target for those of us who live in and near the city.  This month’s offering as a little more challenging.  The springtime constellation of Leo, the Lion has only one first-magnitude and two second-magnitude stars in its basic outline, but it has a very distinct shape that actually resembles a crouching feline.  Its brightest star, Regulus, is just east of the meridian and some 60 degrees above the southern horizon at around 10:00 pm.  North of Regulus is an arc of second- and third-magnitude stars that form the Lion’s head.  His hindquarters are represented by a right triangle of stars with the second-magnitude star Denebola at the acute angle.  From my suburban yard I can just make out both asterisms on a good clear night, while many more begin to appear as you move farther from the city.  The bright star that stands north of Regulus is a wonderful sight in a small telescope.  Known as Algieba, it resolves into a fine pair of golden-yellow stars that offer a nice contrast to the blue-white of Regulus.  From dark skies, other attractions lurk beneath the Lion.  If you look about 2.5 degrees southeast of Chertan, the third-magnitude star that forms the right-angle apex in the Lion’s rear, you should be able to spot two fuzzy blobs of light in a pair of binoculars.  My 4-inch telescope reveals them as a pair of glowing lenticular patches, each of which is a separate distant galaxy.  Known as Messier 65 and 66, they are outlying members of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster, a vast swarm of hundreds of external galaxies that lie “behind” the nearby stars that make up the constellations of Leo, Virgo, and Ursa Major.  Each of these galaxies is similar to our Milky Way, but they are so far away that their light has taken some 40 million years to reach us!

You have just a few short weeks left to have a last long look at Orion and winter’s bright stars.  While they are still prominent in the hour after the end of evening twilight, they settle below the western horizon at around midnight.  Enjoy their fleeting colors while you can.

The evening sky still finds ruddy Mars doggedly pressing eastward through the stars of Taurus, the Bull.  This week the red planet passes just over three degrees south of the Pleiades star cluster.  This should provide a nice photo opportunity contrasting the planet’s warm glimmer with the steely blue of the cluster’s principal stars.

Jupiter can be found on the meridian at around 6:00 am EDT, shining brightly in the first rays of dawn.  The giant planet keeps company with the Moon on the morning of the 27th.  This is a good time to point the telescope his way; early morning hours are generally when our atmosphere is at its steadiest. 

You can use the waning crescent Moon to help you locate Saturn in the brightening hour before sunrise.  Luna passes just three degrees from the ringed planet on the morning of the 29th.  Once you’ve found him, point the telescope his way when you’re done with Jupiter.  You won’t be disappointed.

Venus hugs the southeast horizon, rising as morning twilight grows brighter.  You shouldn’t have any trouble finding her so long as you have a good horizon, but if you do the Moon will be your guide before dawn on April 2nd.  After you’ve spotted her you should be able to find her on every clear morning through mid-summer.

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