Apr 1, 2017
By Tre Gibbs, L.A.A.S.
Spring has arrived, making it a great time to gaze at the celestial show going on above our heads every night (weather permitting!). The days are longer and many of us are remaining outdoors later and later, hopefully enjoying the romance of twilight. One planet in particular, rarely escapes this transitional luminance and that planet is Mercury.
The swift and mysterious Mercury is the closest planet to The Sun and therefore never strays too far from it. It will only be visible for a very short window of time early this month…but you’ll need a clear, unobstructed view of the western horizon to see it. On the evening of the 1st, look low and to the west about 15 - 20 minutes after sunset. As the the sky dims, Mercury will begin to appear as a faint but steady “star”, barely visible in the glow of twilight. The crescent moon, super faint Mars and Mercury will all appear in a straight line that night, heading towards the sun, so use them to help you find Mercury – if you need to. On the following nights, the moon will drift further east and Mercury will continue to sink even closer to the horizon, making it more and more difficult to spot each subsequent night as it heads towards the sun.
The mighty planet Jupiter, the largest in our Solar System, is wandering into our early evening skies this month. During the early part of April, Jupiter rises in the east around the same time the sun sets in the west. So look low in the east just after dark and you should easily see Jupiter – it’s bright, in fact it’s the fourth brightest object in the sky after the Sun, Moon and Venus. On the evening of April 10th, look to the east after sunset and you will see the “Full Pink Moon” and Jupiter rise together, with Jupiter just slightly above and to the right of the moon.
The planet Saturn rises in the east much later – around 2:00 am early in the month and around midnight late in the month. Although by mid-summer, the quintessential ringed gas giant will be high in the south and poised for viewing just after sunset. But remember – it’s so far away that it only appears to us as an insignificant “star”. Yet a glance in even a small powered telescope or pair of binoculars would reveal so much more…
The planet Mars is scarcely visible, very low in the west after sunset only for an hour or two, Earth’s orbit is faster than Mars’ and as we keep speeding away from The God of War, it appears to get dimmer and dimmer, while simultaneously getting engulfed by evening twilight’s glow.
Uranus and Neptune are too far away to see with the unaided eye, so that leaves the planet Venus. Where IS Venus? If you remember, The Goddess of Beauty and Love was exceptionally prominent in the western sky after sunset all through January and February. Now, however, due to her continuing orbit around our nearest star – The Sun, Venus rises low in the east just prior to sunrise. If you’re an early riser, you may spot Venus low in the east around 5:45 am early in the month, and as early as 5:00 am late in the month.
AND… as always, use the moon to help you find the planets! On April 10th, the moon rises with Jupiter – just below and slightly to the left. OnApril 16th at 1:30 am, the moon and Saturn rise together, with small Saturn trailing just below the waning gibbous moon. On the morning ofApril 23rd, both Venus and the moon travel the sky together, both low on the eastern horizon around 5:45 am. So until next month, KEEP LOOKING UP !