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The Sky This Week, 2020 April 21 - 28

Stars fall from the Lyre
Globular Cluster Messier 3, imaged 2020 April 19 from Alexandria, Virginia.
Globular Cluster Messier 3, imaged 2020 April 19 from Alexandria, Virginia
with a 10.2-cm (4-inch) f/6.5 Explore Scientific AR102 refractor
and a Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR

The Moon returns to the evening sky this week, waxing through her crescent phases, reaching First Quarter on the 30th at 4:38 pm Eastern Daylight Time.  Look for Luna near the bright star Aldebaran on the evening of the 25th.  On the following night she passes well south of dazzling Venus, setting up a nice photo opportunity with the stars of Taurus as a backdrop.

Take advantage of the lack of the Moon’s bright light to look for the annual Lyrids meteor shower, which peaks during the early morning hours of the 22nd.  While this shower doesn’t have the high rates of summer’s Perseids or winter’s Geminids, the Lyrids are one of the more consistent displays year-to-year.  The meteors are characterized by medium speed and often appear as fireballs.  A single observer at a dark site can see 15 to 20 per hour, appearing to radiate from the small constellation of Lyra, the Harp.  The radiant rises at around 9:00 pm, but the best activity can be expected before morning twilight begins at around 5:00 am.  

International Dark Sky Week, sponsored by the International Dark-Sky Association, continues through the 26th.  This world-wide observance is geared toward understanding the relationship between us Earth-dwellers and the Cosmos that surrounds us.  We are fortunate to live on a world with a relatively transparent atmosphere that affords us a chance to peer out across unfathomable distances in space and time.  Developing an interest in astronomy is something that is accessible to anyone with a curious mind.  Astronomy is the only field in all of science where the casual amateur has access to the same “specimens” as professionals.  Few amateur rock-hounds can claim to have examined the Hope Diamond “up close”, or have a complete T-Rex skeleton in their basement, but amateur astronomers have the universe parked in their front yards every night.  Apart from clouds, the only impediments to enjoying this view are the results of human activity as we pour gigawatts of wasted light into the lower atmosphere.  International Dark Sky Week offers us a chance to see some of these wonders hidden by the pall of light and provides information on how to restore the pristine beauty of the night sky for more of us to enjoy.

I’ve had a few clear nights over the last couple of weeks to do a little stargazing from my suburban yard.  Despite the glare from the street light that bathes my lawn with a harsh orange-hued light, I can still make some casual observations with my unaided eyes or my 4-inch telescope.  Looking to the west as twilight deepens into night I still have a nice view of Orion as he prepares to set behind the neighbor’s roof line.  One thing that has been easy to notice is the resurgence of the bright star Betelgeuse in Orion’s “shoulder”.  Back in the fall the star began to dim dramatically to the point where it was about on par with the famous “belt” stars.  Now I’m happy to say that it has brightened back up to its usual rosy self, comparable to its blue cohort Rigel.  If you’ve been following this interesting long-term event, catch Orion before he leaves us for the summer.

If you’ve been following the progress of Venus since she emerged into the evening sky late last fall you may have noticed that she has traveled about a quarter of the way around the celestial sphere, gradually increasing her distance from the relentless Sun.  She is currently located in the constellation of Taurus, the Bull, and is drifting toward the constellation’s second-brightest star, El Nath.  Earlier this month she seemed to fly through the Pleiades star cluster, but this week her motion is gradually beginning to grind to a halt.  Watch her over the next couple of weeks; she will get close to El Nath but never quite get there.  In early May she will begin to retreat from the star and start a precipitous plunge toward the Sun.  Enjoy her dazzle in a dark sky while you can; by June she will be just a memory.

Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars are getting easier to see in the early morning twilight.  The two gas giants are about five degrees apart, straddling the border between Sagittarius and Capricornus.  If you’re looking at them at around 5:00 am, use binoculars to try to spot the globular star cluster Messier 75, located just below the two far-flung worlds.  Farther east you should see the ruddy tint of Mars.  During the week watch him close in on the 3rd magnitude star Deneb Algeidi, the “tail” of Capricornus.  He’ll pass the star next week.