The best of astronomy this month: Catch the peak of the Lyrids meteor shower in the early hours of 23 April.
By Patricia Skelton, Astronomy Education Officer
(Details given are for London and may vary for other parts of the UK)
Top 3 things to see this month:
- Throughout the month - Early risers will see Saturn and Jupiter towards the south.
- 9 Apr - A waxing crescent moon forms a celestial triangle with Mars and Aldebaran.
- 23 Apr - Don't miss the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower in the early hours of the morning.
Look Up! Podcast
As well as taking you through what to see in the night sky each month, Royal Observatory Greenwich astronomers pick their favourite astro news story. For April they're talking about hypervelocity stars escaping the gravitational grasp of our Milky Way galaxy and they take a look back at the Apollo 1 disaster and the impact it had on the Apollo programme. Have a listen below then vote for your favourite news story on our Twitter poll during the first week of the month.
Our podcast is available on iTunes too - search Look Up! and rate us if you enjoyed listening.
Throughout the month
If you’re up before the sun rises, look towards the south and you’ll spot the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter. To the right of Jupiter is the red star Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. The name Antares means “Rival of Mars” – Antares has about the same colour and brightness of Mars so the star is often confused for the planet. Lying between, and just below, the two gas giants is a well-known asterism called "The Teapot" in the constellation Sagittarius. Under good sky conditions, our Milky Way galaxy appears as steam rising out of the spout of the teapot with the centre of our galaxy lying to the upper right of the tip of the spout. Towards the end of the month, a waning gibbous moon will be near Jupiter on the morning of April 24 and near Saturn on the morning of April 25.
1 - 10 April
Mars spends the month travelling through the constellation Taurus. From April 1 - 10, Mars will pass between the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters. On the evening of April 9, a waxing crescent moon forms a celestial triangle with Mars and the red giant star Aldebaran. The moon never fails to impress when seen through a pair of binoculars or a telescope. Explore the craters as well as the dark lunar "seas" - Mare Crisium, or the Sea of Crises, will be visible near the limb of the crescent moon. Have a look along the terminator and you just might spot long shadows being cast by mountains and hills.
Look towards the south-west around 9:00pm and you’ll spot Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Sirius is part of the constellation Canis Major, or the “greater dog”, one of the loyal hounds following Orion the Hunter across the sky. Sirius, also known as the Dog Star, is a member of a binary star system. Its companion is a white dwarf star often referred to as “The Pup”. Canis Major is home to a number of deep sky objects including the open star cluster M41. Lying to the south of Sirius, this cluster contains hundreds of stars including a number of white dwarfs and several red giants. M41 is best viewed through a telescope which will reveal some of the cluster members. As its new moon on April 6, the dark sky conditions at the beginning of April are ideal for observing deep sky objects such as M41.
The constellation Leo takes pride of place in the spring night sky. One of the few constellations that looks like its namesake, Leo is easy to spot – just look for a backwards question mark with a bright star at its bottom. This pattern of stars, or asterism, is called the “Sickle” and marks the head, mane and chest of the lion. On the evenings of April 14 and April 15, the waxing gibbous moon lies near Regulus, the brightest star in Leo. Although Regulus appears to be a single star to the unaided eye, it is in fact a quadruple star system – four stars organized into two pairs. Have a look at Regulus through a good pair of binoculars and, if you have a steady hand, you might be able to see two points of light. The brighter point of light is Regulus A, whose stellar companion is thought to be a white dwarf, while the fainter point of light is the other pair of stars.
The Lyrid meteor shower, one of the oldest known meteor showers, will peak in the early hours of April 23. A meteor shower occurs when the Earth passes through a stream of debris left behind by a comet – in the case of the Lyrids, the stream of debris comes from Comet Thatcher which last visited the inner solar system in 1861. The radiant, the point on the sky where meteors will appear to be travelling directly outward from, lies near the star Vega in the constellation Lyra. It’s best to view the Lyrids away from the radiant as they will appear longer and more spectacular from this perspective. Around 15-20 meteors are expected per hour but the light from a bright waning gibbous moon may make some meteors harder to see. Find a clear spot with a low horizon and, although spring is in the air, be sure to dress up warmly.
The Moon's phases this month
- 5 Apr - new moon (09:51am)
- 12 Apr - first quarter moon (08:06pm)
- 19 Apr - full moon (12:12pm)
- 26 Apr - last quarter moon (11:18pm)
When looking at faint objects such as stars, nebulae, the Milky Way and other galaxies it is important to allow your eyes to adapt to the dark – so that you can achieve better night vision.
Allow 15 minutes for your eyes to become sensitive in the dark and remember not to look at your mobile phone or any other bright device when stargazing.
If you’re using a star app on your phone then switch on the red night vision mode.
Need a stargazing telescope or binoculars? Check out our range of high quality observing equipment recommended by Royal Observatory astronomers:
Share your astronomy pictures
Congratulations to Mark Forbes for his beautiful image of the night sky. He shared his image on our astrophotography Facebook page and we chose it for April's banner image.
If you want to be in with a chance to showcase your astrophotography skills on the banner of next month's night sky blog, share your photos via our Royal Observatory Astrophotography Facebook group
You can also connect with us on Twitter: @ROGAstronomers
Hubble Vision - gallery exhibition
Come and see some of the most spectacular images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in our free exhibition at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
The exhibition is open daily until 12 May 2019.
See more of the night sky
Come on an amazing tour of this month's night sky in our Sky Tonight planetarium show delivered live by a Royal Observatory Greenwich astronomer.
Central image: © Mark Forbes
Resources for teachers and students
The Royal Observatory learning team have also created:
- Free animated videos that answer the biggest questions in astronomy and free resources to go alongside them. We’ve just released 3 brand new videos, so be sure to check them out!
- A whole host of podcasts featuring interviews with real space scientists, astronauts and active researchers working in UK Universities.