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The Sky This Week, 2020 March 31 - April 7

Moonscapes by night, and Venus meets Seven Sisters
The Moon in HDR, imaged 2020 March 31, 01:46 UT from Alexandria, Virginia.
The Moon in HDR, imaged 2020 March 31, 01:46 UT from Alexandria, Virginia
with an Explore Scientific 10.2-cm (4-inch) f/6.5 refractor and a Canon EOS Rebel SL2 DSLR.
Six sub-frames, exposures of 1/1000s to 1s, ISO400, processed with EasyHDR 3 software.

The Moon begins the week high among the late winter stars, then begins to descend the ecliptic as she waxes among the springtime constellations.  Full Moon occurs on April 7th at 10:35 pm Eastern Daylight Time.  April’s Full Moon is variously known as the Sprouting Grass Moon, Pink Moon, or Egg Moon.  This month it is also called the Paschal Moon, as it is the first Full Moon to occur after March 21 and therefore sets the date of Easter.  Full Moon occurs just over 8 hours after Luna passes through her closest perigee of the year.  Some folks call this a “super Moon”, but most of us would be hard-pressed to notice a difference from any other Full Moon in the year.  Look for the Moon high in the sky near the Twin Stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, on the evening of the 1st.  On the evening of the 4th she will be just to the northeast of the bright star Regulus in Leo.  She ends the week rising at sunset near the bright star Spica in the constellation of Virgo.

With the brightening Moon dominating the sky, she makes an obvious target for evening stargazing.  One of my favorite activities is photographing her, constantly looking for interesting backgrounds to set her in or new ways to capture her beauty with a telescope.  Today’s digital cameras are wonderful tools for this interesting activity, and even newer smart phones have cameras with wide dynamic range and high resolution that can capture Luna’s many different moods.  One of my favorite activities is using her soft light to illuminate landscapes at night.  Using long exposures and a tripod you will find that the Moon casts a ghostly kind of daylight, so from dark locations you can create images that look like they were shot during the day, but with stars in the sky!  And even though I have access to the wonderful 12-inch refracting telescope at the U.S. Naval Observatory, I’m always looking for more ways to capture her with my smaller telescopes at home.  Using digital imagery and a computer it’s possible to create interesting images that cover a wide dynamic range, such as showing “Earthshine” between the cusps of the lunar crescent while preserving the detail of the crescent’s sunlit area.  The Moon is a great place to start an interest in astrophotography, but watch out.  You may become hooked and start to think of other things in the night sky to point your camera toward.

As the Moon waxes we start to lose the bright stars of winter in the early evening sky.  Orion and his bright cohorts are heeling over in the southwestern sky as evening twilight ends, and these colorful companions of long winter nights now leave us by midnight.  

The springtime constellations don’t have as much flair, but there are a few bright stars to compete with the glow of the Full Moon.  By 11:00 pm the constellation of Leo, the Lion is crossing the meridian, led by the star Regulus, which fittingly translates a “little king”.  Above Regulus is the asterism known as The Sickle that forms Leo’s head and mane, and to the east a right triangle of stars delineates the Lion’s haunches.  

In the late evening look for one of my favorite signs of spring, the bright star Arcturus.  You’ll find this beacon prominently placed in the eastern sky, glimmering with a slight rosy tint.  Arcturus is the fourth-brightest star in the sky, so it is very hard to miss.  Located just under 37 light-years from us, Arcturus is the nearest red giant star to the solar system.  

Get your binoculars out in the early evening sky to watch the dazzling planet Venus pass through the famous Pleiades star cluster.  On the evening of the 3rd Venus will be embedded among the cluster’s southernmost stars, but she will still be within a wide-field telescopic view on the 2nd and the 4th.  If clouds interfere with the view, we will get more chances every eight years.

Mars sprints by Saturn in the pre-dawn sky as the week opens, then continues on his merry way through the constellation of Capricornus, the Sea-goat.  By the end of the week Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars will look like three beads on a string, but over the course of spring the red planet will desert his more distant, hulking companions.