April will start with Jupiter (magnitude -2.6) well above the eastern horizon at sunset. You should be able to spot it just after sundown. If you view it with a pair of binoculars or a telescope, you should be able to see its bands. On a good night, you might spot several of its larger moons. Jupiter will be visible for most of the night, setting in the west just before dawn.
Mars will rise around 11:40 p.m., followed by Saturn at 12:24 a.m. The two planets and the red star, Antares, will form a triangle that will move across the night sky throughout April. If you are having trouble distinguishing Mars and Antares, remember that Mars is the brighter of the two red objects–and it appears a little higher in the skies than Antares.
Pluto will rise at about 2:30 a.m. on the morning of April 2. Neptune will rise at 5:40 a.m., just before dawn. With visual magnitudes of +14 and +8, neither will be visible to the naked eye.
Mercury will be very close to the western horizon at dusk. If conditions are just right, you might be able to spot it on April 1. As April progresses, Mercury will set a little later each night, so your chances of seeing it increase each evening. It will be at its highest point above the horizon on the evening of April 18. At this point, Mercury will be at its brightest, with a visual magnitude of +0.3. For the rest of the month, it will set a little closer to the horizon each night until it is lost in the glow of the sunset. Don’t look for Mercury before the sun has set. Even at dusk, the sun can be bright enough to cause eye damage!
The Lyrid Meteor Shower will peak on the night of April 22. The Lyrids usually offer about 10 to 20 shooting stars per hour, but sometimes you might see a fireball or two. The best viewing times will be after 10 p.m. on Friday. The full moon will make conditions less than ideal. The Lyrids seem to originate from the constellation Lyra. The prominent star in that constellation is Vega. You can find it by looking for the very bright star in the north-northeast.
Orion (the hunter) starts April as the most prominent constellation in the southwestern evening skies. But don’t overlook the Pleiades (M45). M45 will be between Orion and the horizon. It is often called the Seven Sisters because most people can easily make out five to seven of its stars with the naked eye. If you look at it with binoculars, you will see much more. There are literally hundreds of stars in the Pleiades and lots of bright swirls of nebulosity.
Arcturus rises just after sunset in the northeast. It’s a bright double star that happens to be the brightest star in the northern hemisphere. It’s also very close to us – only 37 light years away. Its light was used to open the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. At that time, measurements put Arcturus 40 light years away. Chicago had hosted the 1893 World’s Fair, so it seemed fitting to open the 1933 World’s Fair with starlight that had started its journey to Earth during the previous event. This was accomplished by using several telescopes to collect the light of Arcturus, focus it on solar cells, and then use it to switch on the current for the floodlights of the fair.
On March 1, I started using a Canon DSLR camera for planetary imaging. This branch of astrophotography is very different than the approach I use for “deep space objects” like galaxies and nebula. The planets and moon are all relatively bright objects, so instead of taking multiple long exposure images, I’ve been using the DSLR as a high-quality video camera. The procedure consists of focusing on the planet, capturing a sequence of 500 to 2,000 frames, and then processing the frames with special software that selects the best 200 or 300, aligns them, and then helps pick out the details.
In theory, it sounds pretty simple, but it gets difficult real fast. Atmospheric conditions are a major obstacle. At times, Jupiter was jumping around so fast on the monitor I could only guess at the right focus.
Here are a couple of shots that showed major improvements over last month’s image. I included both because the second one shows the famous red spot of Jupiter. That’s a massive storm that’s been observed for the past 300 years.