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The night sky for April 2014

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere night sky during April 2014.

The constellation of Gemini and the planet Jupiter are setting in the west as the Sun goes down. Leo, with its bright star Regulus, is in the south, and to the left of Regulus are the galaxies M95, M96, M66 and M65, which are visible in binoculars or a small telescope. To the left of Leo, more such objects can be found in a region between Coma Berenices and Virgo known as the Realm of the Galaxies, which looks towards the Virgo Cluster. The bright star Arcturus is to the south-east, in Bootes, with the circlet of stars called Corona Borealis to its left. The bright star Vega rises in the north-east later in the evening, in Lyra, followed by Cygnus and the Milky Way. Ursa Major is almost overhead, containing the famous asterism of the Plough, or Big Dipper. If you look diagonally up the trapezium-shaped part of the Plough from bottom-left to top-right, and then carry on for the same distance again, you reach the galaxies of M82 and M81. M82, nicknamed the Cigar Galaxy, is a starburst galaxy where many new stars and supernovae can be seen. The middle star of the Plough's handle is actually a double, with two components called Mizar and Alcor, or the Horse and Rider. A telescope shows that Mizar is itself a double star, and another, reddish star appears in the same field of view.

The Planets


Southern Hemisphere

John Field from the Carter Observatory in New Zealand speaks about the southern hemisphere night sky during April 2014.

The daylight hours continue to shorten as the southern hemisphere progresses through early autumn. Three bright planets can be seen in the early evening sky: Jupiter in the north-west, in Gemini, Mars in the north-east, shining with an orange-red hue near to the star Spica in Virgo, and Saturn, which follows Mars in Libra. Mars makes the closest approach to Earth in its current orbit this month, while Saturn's rings and its largest moon, the orange-coloured Titan, are well placed for viewing with a telescope. Mars and Saturn are high in the sky by midnight and above Mars is a kite-shaped quartet of stars in the constellation of Corvus the Crow. Delta Corvi is a wide double star, but there are few other easily-observed objects in the vicinity. Nearby is Hydra the Water Snake, a long path of stars with a distinct group of five stars forming its head.

The winter constellation of Scorpius rises in the east in the evening. Its brightest star, at magnitude +1, is the red supergiant Antares, known as the Rival of Mars because of its colour. It is called Rehua by Maori in Aoteroa (New Zealand), and marks the eye of Maui's fishing hook. This hook is called Te Matau a Maui, for which the back and stinger of the Scorpion's body become the curve and tip of the hook. According to Maori mythology, the great hero Maui used this hook to pull the North Island of New Zealand from the ocean, for which that part of the country is named Te Ika-a-Maui - the Fish of Maui. The tip of the hook crosses a wide and bright part of the Milky Way, and in this part of the sky we are looking towards the Galactic centre, some 30,000 light-years away. The Southern Cross of Crux and its pointer stars are found by running up the Milky Way, as are the Diamond and False Crosses. Crux is called Te Punga in Maori star lore. The hero Tamarereti sailed across the heavens in his Waka, or canoe, placing the stars into the sky, and Te Punga was his boat's Anchor. You can find south halfway between Crux and the bright star Achernar, in Eridanus, by following the line from the top to the base of the Cross. Two-thirds of the way along this line are the Magellanic Clouds, dwarf satellite galaxies of the Milky Way.


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The Night Sky This Month is one part of the Jodcast. The full show contains the latest news, interviews with astronomers, answers to listener questions and more.

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