Last modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Venus dances with the Pleiades in April
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Venus will glide past the Pleiades star cluster high in the west during the evenings of April 2 and 3. At its closest, the brilliant white planet will overwhelm the six brightest stars of the cluster, so if you can, use binoculars or a telescope to see the spectacle at its finest.
The Pleiades (pronounced PLEE-ah-deez) are a lovely sight by themselves in binoculars. On a clear night they can be seen with the unaided eye in the constellation Taurus the Bull. A photograph of the Pleiades is available at http://www.seds.org/messier/more/m045_image.html and at several other Web sites as well.
Known prehistorically, the Pleiades were mentioned in the eighth century B.C. by the Greek poet Hesiod. In Greek mythology and other western legend they were called the Seven Sisters, the daughters of Atlas and Pleone. Many people in other parts of the world have stories about them as well. They are identified as a group of women in many cultures, from Australian Aborigine to Native American. To the Japanese their name is Subaru, from which the car's name was taken. Some Chinese legends refer to a swarm of bees. The Maori of New Zealand and some people of the Pacific Islands call them Matariki, the star cluster that heralds the start of their New Year.
Venus will be high in the western sky at sunset all month, nearly as bright as it ever gets. It will remain visible for several hours before finally setting. Enjoy this beautiful "evening star" while you can, because it will start to drop rapidly during May.
Mercury can be spotted far to the lower right (north) of Venus for about an hour after sunset during the first week of April, but you'll need a clear view of the western horizon to see it. After that it will disappear into the solar glare, passing between the sun and Earth on its way to the morning sky.
Much closer to Venus will be Mars, a faint orange object to the near upper left (south) of dominant Venus, which will be several hundred times brighter. Mars can easily be confused with the bright orange star Aldebaran to its left (south). Venus will seem to be pursuing Mars during April as the two mismatched planets get noticeably closer. The crescent moon will be near both of them on April 22 and 23.
Then on April 24, the moon will pass close by Saturn even higher in the west-southwest. With its rings still tilted toward us almost the maximum amount, the bright yellow planet will remain a splendid sight in any telescope as it drifts through the constellation Gemini the Twins.
All that activity in the western sky might make it easy to overlook Jupiter in the east if the giant planet weren't so conspicuous. Second only to Venus in brilliance, Jupiter will be high in the southeast at dusk in the constellation Leo the Lion. It will reach its highest point in the south around 11 p.m. local time, when it will be best placed for viewing with a telescope.
The Lyrid meteor shower will peak around midnight local time on the night of April 21-22, with about 20 meteors per hour normally visible in a clear dark sky. The moon will be just past new and will not interfere with the display. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but they will seem to come from a point called the radiant in the constellation Lyra the Harp, which gives the shower its name. Lyra's bright white star Vega will be almost at the radiant, and the meteor count should be highest when Vega is well above the eastern horizon, beginning around 11 p.m. local time in the Northern Hemisphere and lasting the rest of the night. The later the hour, the more meteors there will be.
A partial eclipse of the sun will be visible in southern Africa on April 19. For details and a map, see http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/OH/OH2004.html#SE2004Apr19P.
Vega is part of a trio of bright white stars called the Summer Triangle, with Vega the first to rise each night in the east and leading the way high across the sky. The others are Altair in the constellation Aquila the Eagle to the south and Deneb in the constellation Cygnus the Swan to the north. When you are looking from Deneb to Altair, you are also looking at the Milky Way, though it is usually obscured by city lights. If you find a place that's dark enough for you to see the Milky Way, you'll also see a lot more meteors from there.
The moon will be full on April 5, at third quarter on April 12, new on April 19 and at first quarter on April 27.