Stars over Sisters 3/23/2021
Last updated 3/23/2021 at Noon
As April begins, the sun is in Pisces as it continues to ascend in the sky on its eastward trek along the ecliptic. By month’s end our life-sustaining star will advance well into Aries.
During this time, a greater collection of springtime constellations will become available for evening viewing, as those of winter sink lower in the west.
For many, the zodiacal constellation of Leo the Lion is a favorite. There are probably many reasons for this, but the two most obvious are the fact that its constituent stars are relatively bright, and their arrangement does suggest the shape of a reclining cat.
The sickle-shaped stellar grouping, or backwards question mark, represents the lion’s head and mane. Farther to the east three stars form a right triangle that symbolizes his haunches. The constellation’s brightest star, Regulus, represents the beast’s heart. The constellation is bordered by Cancer to the west and its eastern neighbor Virgo and lies about 30 degrees south of the bowl of the Big Dipper.
There is an impressive collection of deep sky objects in Leo, five of which are listed in Messier’s catalog, while several others are recorded in the New General Catalog (NGC)—and all of them are galaxies!
Three of the most impressive of these galaxies are known as the Leo Triplet, consisting of M65, M66 and NGC 3628. While each of them is a spiral galaxy, NGC 3628 does not display the typical swirly pattern because we are viewing it edge-on. The members of this galactic trio are quite close together in space, so much so that they gravitationally interact with each other. The celestial threesome is located about 35 million light-years from Earth.
According to Greek mythology, Leo is associated with the powerful lion that terrorized citizens of Nemea. The beast’s hide was so tough as to be invincible to weapons made of iron or stone. Meanwhile, as penance for killing his family (brought on by a madness induced by Zeus’ jealous wife Hera), Hercules was required to perform Twelve Labors, feats of strength and heroism. The first of these labors was to slay the Nemean lion, which he did by strangling it to death. Zeus honored the achievement by placing the lion in the sky.
The reliable but relatively weak Lyrid meteor shower occurs from around April 16 through the 25. This year the best time to watch for these shooting stars will be during the two-hour period after moonset and dawn on the morning of April 22. Expect to see approximately 10 to 15 meteors per hour that will appear to emanate from near the bright star Vega.
Although still dimming, ruddy Mars is nevertheless the most prominent planet in the evening sky. It spends most of the month in Taurus before cruising into Gemini toward the end of April. On the evenings of the 26th and 27th, Mars will be near the open star cluster M35 at the foot of the twin Castor.
While Mercury and Venus are now officially evening planets, both are still too close to the sun to be easily spotted. Look for them low near the western horizon about 30 minutes after sunset on April 30.
Jupiter and Saturn are both in Capricornus this month; Saturn rising just after 4 a.m. on April 1, followed by Jupiter 35 minutes later. Both planets will slowly distance themselves from the sun over the next several months.
The moon will be on the wane early in the month before going dark on April 11 (best time for nighttime sky observing). Then on April 26 the Full Pink supermoon will pay us a visit. At that time, the moon will be 16,688 miles closer to the earth than during an average full moon.