As the sun climbs higher into the sky in April, it brings the promise of warmer weather and clear skies, and it couldnt come at a better time for all who enjoy our night sky. The planet Saturn grabs center stage in the evening all month while lovers of planetary alignments may glimpse the gathering formation of every other planet in the solar system toward months end.
Every 13 months as the Earth orbits the sun, it catches and passes Saturn, making its closest approach to what many believe to be the most beautiful object in the night sky.
Opposition, when the giant ringed planet appears directly opposite the sun, occurs on the nights of April 3 and 4. It will rise as the sun sets and stay visible all night, climbing high overhead by midnight. As the month progresses Saturn will rise earlier every evening, becoming ideally placed for telescopic viewing late in the month.
To the unaided eye, Saturn makes a stunning addition to the pattern of bright stars that appear in Aprils evening sky. Leo the Lion, the constellation that heralds the arrival of spring, rises before Saturn and lies high in the south, rearing its mane above the planet in late evening. The brightest star in Leo, Denebola, marks the lions tail. Spica, the brightest star in Saturns host constellation Virgo, lies just below, and the brightest star in the April sky, Arcturus, appears to the left.
If we can find the familiar big dipper, we can always find Arcturus when it appears in the sky. The handle of the dipper forms an arc. Follow the arc through the sky all the way to Arcturus and then continue that arc, and speed on to Spica.
Saturn looks like just another bright star to the unaided eye, but is transformed into a ringed beauty when viewed through a telescope. Any telescope will do, and a good pair of 10 by 50 or larger binoculars, held steady, will reveal the rings. The view is so stunning that many amateur astronomers will admit that it was their first view of the rings that hooked them on star-gazing.
A gathering of the masses
As April begins, only Saturn shines to represent our solar systems mass of planets. By the end of the month, however, every other planet will begin to gather in the morning sky, preparing for a grand show in May.
Early risers may already spot bright Venus hovering over the eastern horizon as morning twilight encroaches. By April 19 Mercury, Mars and Jupiter make their first appearance, but are quite difficult to see in morning light. They rise earlier by April 30, joined by a thin crescent moon. Binoculars may be necessary to spot the group, but that will change in May.
Although not visible to the eye, Uranus, Neptune, and even Pluto, all occupy the same part of the sky, making for a remarkable gathering of most major planetary objects.
Bob Duke is a local amateur astronomer, astronomy educator and weekly contributor to the Daily Astorian.