Stars over Sisters


Last updated 4/18/2023 at 6:17pm

Photo courtesy ESA/Hubble and NASA

Spiral galaxy NGC 3887 is located more than 60 million light-years away in the constellation of Crater.

Crater is a relatively faint, small springtime constellation that is visible from our latitude here in Central Oregon. Crater is the 53rd largest constellation, taking up 282 square degrees of sky. An arrangement of eight stars defines a pattern that looks like a tilted cup. The brightest of these is Delta Crateris, an orange giant star that shines at a magnitude of 3.6. It is only slightly more massive, but 22 times larger, than our sun and lies at a distance of about 163 light-years.

Crater's neighboring constellations are Corvus, Hydra, Leo, Sextans, and Virgo. To spot Crater in the sky, first find Corvus-four fairly bright stars shaped like a trapezoid. The cup lies 10 to 15 degrees west of this location.

Burnham's Celestial Handbook lists 15 deep-sky objects in Crater, all of them dim galaxies. Still, NGC 3887 is worth mentioning. Because of its orientation to us, some astronomers regard this object as an ideal target for studying a spiral galaxy's winding arms and the stars within them. NGC 3887 lies over 60 million light-years away from us. It was discovered by William Herschel in 1785.

In mythology, Crater represents the two-handled chalice of Apollo, god of the sun. According to one story, Apollo was about to make a sacrifice upon an altar, but discovered he didn't have the water necessary to perform the ritual, so he sent a raven out with his cup to collect water. While looking for water, the raven came across a fig tree with unripe fruit. The raven got distracted and waited by the tree a few days until the figs ripened. After eating the ripened figs, the raven returned with the chalice, as well as a water snake, blaming the snake for drinking the water as an excuse for being late. But Apollo saw through the deceit and angrily cast them into the sky, turning them all into constellations.

The Lyrid meteor shower will peak on the evening of April 22 into the predawn hours of the next morning, when up to 18-20 meteors per hour are expected. These shooting stars are caused by debris from Comet Thatcher that enter the earth's atmosphere and are incinerated by the heat of friction. The meteors appear to emanate from a part of the sky near the bright star Vega in the constellation of Lyra. Moonlight will not interfere this year as a thin waxing crescent will set about 11:30 p.m. local time on April 22.

Venus, Mercury, and Mars still roam the evening skies. Mercury is best seen during the first two weeks of April, as it gets lower in the sky thereafter. On April 10 Uranus will lie between Venus and Mercury low in the western sky. Try using binoculars to spot it at about 8:40 p.m. After spending the past several months in Taurus, the Red Planet now resides in Gemini.

Saturn is the lone morning planet that will be best seen near the end of the month as it pulls away from the sun. Jupiter is too close to the sun to be viewed this month.

The Full Pink Moon will make its appearance on April 6, then fade to new on April 20.

This month's dark-sky tip is to ensure that your outdoor lights are dim and warm in color. This applies to all lights, including the increasingly popular string lights. While these new lights can be appealing to the eye, they are a significant source of light pollution. If you must have string lights, purchase those that are shielded and don't forget to turn them off when packing up for the night.


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