Farewell Orion and Company!
The best stargazing will be during the first couple of weeks of April for several reasons. For one thing we wonít have as much moonlight in the sky messing up the darkness. All weíll have is a slowly growing crescent moon in the evening sky.
Secondly, for about the first half of April the constellation Orion and his entourage of other constellations with bright stars will still very prominent in the early evening western sky. You canít help but see those three distinct stars that make up the belt of Orion, the mighty hunter of the heavens. Thereís many greats constellations that peruse our celestial dome through the course of the year, but as far as Iím concerned Orion is the king! Itís one of the few constellations that actually looks like what itís supposed to be. No matter how much light pollution you have to put up with Orion is easily visible. Without too much imagination you can see the torso of a muscular man with the bright star Rigel marking his left knee, and Betelgeuse, a bright and noticeably orange star, at his right armpit.
At nightfall, which is considerably later in April, Orion starts out in the southwestern sky, leaning to the right. Surrounding Orion is his gang of bright constellations that really jump out at you. Orionís stellar family includes Taurus the Bull, resembling a small downward pointing arrow; Auriga the chariot driver turned goat farmer, Gemini the Twins; and Canis Major and Canis Minor, Orionís large and small hunting dogs respectively.
This is the swan song for Orionís gang. As April slides toward May, Orion and his stellar cast will open each evening closer and closer to the western horizon. By the end of April most of the starry entourage of winter will already be below the horizon as the darkness of evening sets in. Weíll see Orionís gang again in the evening around early November in the eastern heavens.
In the high northern sky, the Big Dipper is putting on quite a show, hanging upside down in the early evening. One of the old yarns is that we have more rain in the spring because the Big Dipper is upside down, dumping on us Earthlings. As bright and distinct as the Big Dipper is, itís not a constellation all by itself, but rather the rear end and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, otherwise known as the Big Bear.
Over in the eastern sky the main constellation attraction is Leo the Lion, another one of those rare constellations that resembles what itís supposed to be. The constellation actually comes in two parts. The upper right side is an easy to see backward question mark leaning to the left that outlines the chest and head of the big celestial cat. The moderately bright star that makes up the period of the question mark is the star Regulus, marking the heart of the Lion. To the lower left of the starry query symbol is a fairly bright triangle that makes up the rear and tail of Leo.
Over in the low southeast sky is one of those constellations that doesnít look anything like what itís supposed to be. Itís Corvis the Crow, and all there is to it are four stars that make a lopsided trapezoid. Good luck seeing that as a crow. Thereís also a giant kite rising not far away in the low eastern sky. Thatís the constellation Bootes the Farmer, with the bright star Arcturus at the tail of the big kite.
The only planet we have available in the early evening sky all month is Mars, just to the west of the star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus the Bull. Unfortunately itís not much of a telescope target because Earth and Mars have pulled far away from each other in their respective orbits around the sun. At the start of this month Mars is nearly two hundred million miles from the sun, so it wonít look like much more than an orange-red dot even through medium to larger telescopes.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and is author of the book, ďStars, a Month by Month Tour of the ConstellationsĒ published by Adventure Publications. Available at bookstores and online at www.adventurepublications.net.
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something youíre seeing in the night sky drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org