Starry Night: Early April 2012

Posted Wednesday, March 28, 2012 in Features

Starry Night: Early April 2012

courtesy NASA

by Tristan Radtke

After last month’s planetary and lunar conjunction and prior to the late April return of the Lyrid meteor shower, the beginning of the month of April is relatively quiet in terms of stellar activity. Warmer evening temperatures outdoors allow for more comfortable stargazing, and the return of the summer constellations provides an excellent opportunity to view our more distant neighbors, so despite the lack of local stellar phenomena, early April remains a great time to view the stars and planets.

Meanwhile, for those interested in the science of our local solar system, an intriguing study has been published, as reported by ScienceNOW on which challenges the current scientific understanding of the formation of the moon. It has long been believed by most scientists that the moon was created by a planetary collision early in the Earth’s formation between our planet and another, now-obliterated, Mars-like planet. This collision formed a magma belt, thought for years to have been made up of a part, around 40 percent, of the now nonexistent planet, which eventually formed a planetary object in our orbit through cooling and centrifugal force.

But the recent study has shown that isotopes in moon rock, namely titanium, tend to exist in the same proportions in moon rock that would be found here on Earth. This is important, as the study indicates, because titanium has a particularly high boiling point, making it unlikely that a large portion of the moon was created out of a separate stellar body. This challenges the long-held scientific theory on the formation of the moon entirely, and raises the possibility that the moon may be far more hospitable to Terran forms of life and life-giving nutrients than previously held.

The Stars

Late-night viewing may include our old friend, the Summer Triangle, which is an asterism that borrows stars from three different constellations: Deneb, from the constellation Cygnus, the Swan; Vega, from the constellation Lyra, the Harp; and Altair, from the constellation Aquila, the Eagle. Crossing the triangle is the best view of the center of the Milky Way that is visible from Earth. Spend a little time after midnight, on a moonless night (maybe on Aapril 21) and spot the Milky Way, which looks like a cloudy patch of light.

The Planets

• Mercury: Mercury begins April as the "morning star," rising just before sunrise at around 5:35 a.m. By April 15, it will have moved slightly along with the sun, still rising just before sunrise but earlier, around 5:10 a.m.

• Venus: On April 1, Venus will set around 11 p.m. Nothing much will have changed for Venus by the middle of the month, setting again around 11 p.m.

• Mars: Mars will set around 5 a.m. on April 1, and by the middle of the month it will have moved a bit further into the evening, setting around 4 a.m.

• Jupiter: Jupiter will set around 8:25 p.m. on April 1, and by April 15 it will set around 8:45 p.m.

• Saturn: Saturn will begin April rising around 8:15 p.m., and by mid-April will rise just before sunset at about 7:15 p.m.

• Uranus: Uranus begins April lost in the glare of the sun, and by mid-month will be preparing for a comeback, rising just before sunrise, but still too dim to spot in the morning twilight.

• Neptune: Neptune will begin April returning from a spell lost in the glare of the sun, visible just before sunrise. On April 15, Neptune will rise a bit earlier and be more likely to spot with a telescope, rising around 4 a.m.

• Pluto: Pluto will rise at about 1:50 a.m. on April 1, and by mid-month will rise at about 1 a.m.

The Moon

The moon will begin April waxing toward full phase, which it will reach on April 6. It will begin waning, reaching third quarter on April 13, and new phase on April 21. By April 29, it will have waxed to first quarter, and will continue waxing into the month of May.

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