Night Sky Guide: April to June 2014

HIGHLIGHTS

Mars, Ceres, and Vesta at Opposition in April

A Total Lunar Eclipse on April 14th/15th

An Annular Solar Eclipse in Antarctica

Lyrid Meteors zip through April

Mercury's Best Appearance of the year in May

Saturn is at Opposition in May

Neptune and then Uranus by Venus before dawn

Two Meteor Showers liven up May

The Solstice brings Summer to the North

Author: Kelly Whitt

Spring has returned with Virgo rising in the evening. As Virgo enters the night sky it brings with it its brightest star, Spica, along with a visitor, Mars. Mars is the brighter, redder object of the pair, shining at magnitude -1.5. Mars reaches opposition on April 8, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise.

Learn the constellation Virgo in order to find two asteroids cruising through the dark. Vesta, at magnitude 5.8, reaches opposition on April 13, and Ceres at magnitude 7.0 reaches opposition on April 14. On April 14, when the Moon is one day away from full phase (and a total lunar eclipse), it (the Moon) will rise in the southeast beside the bright star Spica in Virgo. To the upper right of the pair is reddish Mars, and to the upper left of the pair is a dimmer star known as Heze. Just over four degrees to the left of Heze floats Vesta, visible in binoculars (and with the naked eye if you know exactly where to look), with Ceres about three degrees farther to the left of Vesta. The best way to spot asteroids is to memorize or sketch the field of view over a series of nights and note which objects move. On July 4, Vesta and Ceres will be less than a degree apart and only a degree and a half below Heze.

Early risers can find Neptune less than two degrees from Venus on April 12 before sunrise. Other planets are also visible on April evenings, including Jupiter, which is easy to spot in the west after sunset. Jupiter and the Moon pair up on April 6 in Gemini. April 16 will find Saturn and the Moon less than two degrees apart in the constellation Libra. As you see Saturn and the Moon rise in the late evening in the southeast, note the stars to the upper left and upper right of the Moon. These two stars are some of amateur astronomers' favourites due to their fun-to-pronounce names. The star to the upper left of the Moon is Zubeneschamali and the star to the upper right of the Moon is Zubenelgenubi.

Lunar Eclipse
The Moon entering total lunar eclipse stage.
Credit: Ali Taylor

A total lunar eclipse will occur overnight for the Western Hemisphere from April 14/15. Western Europe and Africa will see part of the eclipse just before moonset. Much of America will probably sleep through the eclipse due to its timing. For example, in Chicago the Moon enter the partial eclipse phase at 12:58 a.m. Total phase lasts from 2:07 to 3:25 a.m. early on the 15th, and then the partial phase wraps up before dawn at 4:33 a.m. The Moon officially reaches full phase during the eclipse on April 15, at 2:42 a.m. CDT or 7:42 UT.

An annular solar eclipse occurs over Antarctica on April 29. The next set of eclipses will occur in the month of October and will favour much of North America.

The Lyrid Meteors peak on April 22 to 23. The radiant will be rising in the late evening. Expect about 20 meteors an hour at the shower's peak.

If you want to spot Mercury, May will give you your best chance of the year. The innermost planet climbs into the evening sky in the west and is most easily visible toward the end of the month. As it gets farther away from the Sun, however, it dims a bit, but even on May 30 at magnitude 1.2 it should still be easy to spot beside a crescent Moon.

Jupiter seen with Mercury
Jupiter and Mercury as seen in 2011.
Credit: John Chumack

Each evening as Mercury has been climbing higher in the sky, Jupiter has been sliding down to meet it. But Mercury starts sinking back toward the horizon on May 25, which means their meeting will be left for another day.

Jupiter spends May in Gemini and the Moon passes through its vicinity on May 3 and 4, and then again on May 31, when the Moon is a 10-percent-lit crescent. Mars and Saturn are trailing behind Jupiter on the ecliptic. Saturn reaches opposition on May 10 on the same evening that the Moon nears Mars, and three days later the Moon reaches Saturn just a little shy of full phase. The Full Moon is on May 14 at 19:16 UT.

Saturn can be seen at Opposition in May
A great time to view Saturn through a telescope is during opposition.
Credit: John Chumack

Last month before sunrise it was Neptune that came within two degrees of Venus, but in May it's Uranus' turn. On May 15 you can find Uranus less than two degrees to the upper left of Venus. If you want to see Venus and Uranus together in the evening, you'll have to wait until March 4, 2015, when they will be less than a degree apart.

The Eta Aquarid Meteors peak on May 6 when we pass through an old stream of dust left behind by Halley's Comet. These fast-moving meteors with long trains are best in the early morning hours of May 6 and may produce up to 70 meteors an hour.

Before sunrise on Saturday May 24, Earth will pass through a debris trail left behind by comet P/209 LINEAR, giving us the chance for an outburst of meteors. With a possibility of 400 meteors an hour, itís worth a peek.

June opens with Jupiter and the Moon together in the west after sunset and Mercury to the lower right. But Mercury won't hang around long as it drops lower and the Sun stays up longer, moving toward the summer solstice on June 21 at 10:51 UT. Jupiter will be setting only about one hour after sunset by month's end. This makes Mars and Saturn the planets to watch as the Northern Hemisphere evenings warm for summer.

At the beginning of April, Mars was close to Spica, but then it began to move away in the direction of Leo. In May, Mars' motion stalled out by Virgo's star Porrima, and now in June Mars heads back toward Spica. On June 7 find reddish Mars above a waxing gibbous Moon, and on June 8 the Moon will reside near Spica. On June 9 and 10 the Moon hovers in the vicinity of Saturn. As Mars returns to Spica it will also be moving toward Saturn. The two planets will get close in late August.

The Full Moon occurs on June 13 at 4:11 UT, or back in the states on June 12 at 11:11 p.m. CDT. Juneís meteors include the Lyrids (June 16) and Bootids (June 27). Neither one of them are very reliable, but they give observers a chance to catch a "shooting star" while stargazing.

If you're confused by any of the astronomy terminology used on this page take a look at our: explanation of astronomy basics. Also, do visit our section on CCD Imaging to see what other amateur enthusiasts have managed to capture with their equipment. If there are any amateur astrophotographers out there who would like to exhibit their images on Astronomy Today do contact us.

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