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What's in the Sky — April 2018

Explore the starry skies of April! There will be a number of intriguing celestial sights to enjoy with the help of a binocular or telescope. Here are a few of our favorites:

April is Global Astronomy Month
Here's your chance to bring your telescopes and binoculars to stargazing parties organized by your local astronomy club. Kicking off on April 1st, Astronomers without Borders will bring together enthusiasts and organizations from around the world to share their passion for the universe, celebrating the motto of One People, One Sky. Check out the GAM events planned in your area.

Mars and Saturn Together
After midnight in early April, get outside to catch a glimpse of planets Mars and Saturn together in the night sky. Starting April 2nd, the two planets will appear close to one another and spread further apart, night to night, through mid-April. Get out your astronomy binoculars or telescope on April 7th as the Moon joins Mars and Saturn to make a stunning party of three.

Spring Brings Galaxy Season!
April skies provide stargazers with ample opportunities to observe far-off galaxies. With the Virgo Galaxy Cluster and bright galaxies in the Big Dipper and Coma Berenices well-positioned in the sky, April evenings are truly a gift for galaxy hounds. Check out a few of our favorite galaxies: M101, M51, and M106 near the Big Dipper asterism; M86, M87, M84 and M104 in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster; and don't miss NGC 4565, M64, M99, and M100 in the constellation Coma Berenices. While a humble 80mm telescope will show most of the galaxies we mention, a big reflector like our SkyQuest XT10 Classic Dobsonian will provide jaw-dropping views of these distant galaxies!

Jupiter Shines Brightly During New Moon
The brilliant silver-white luster of Jupiter shines brightest this year beginning April 16th, timed perfectly with the dark skies of the new moon. The planet's two equatorial belts are easy to view and delight beginners and advanced observers alike. Take a closer look to view more subtle clouds, spots, and belts. Large astronomy binoculars will give you a glimpse of Jupiter's four major moons. For an enhanced view of the planet, with two or more cloud bands visible, use a telescope fitted with Orion's 1.25" Jupiter Observation Eyepiece Filter for observation.

International Dark Sky Week
From Sunday, April 15th through Saturday, April 21st, celebrate International Dark Sky Week by keeping your outdoor lights turned off after sunset to reduce light pollution. Endorsed by the International Dark-Sky Association and the American Astronomical Society, International Dark Sky Week presents an opportunity to appreciate the beautiful night sky without the adverse effects of light pollution from outdoor lighting. Turn out those lights and enjoy views of the starry sky from your own backyard!

Lyrids Meteor Shower
Kick off International Dark Sky Week by getting outside after midnight on the night of April 16th to enjoy the start of the Lyrids Meteor Shower. Look for meteors to radiate outwards from the constellation Lyra at the peak of the shower, after midnight on the 22nd into the early hours of April 23rd. The Lyrids is a medium shower, which can produce about 20 meteors per hour during its peak — this year it should produce about 18 per hour. The waxing crescent Moon will be out when shower activity peaks, but it shouldn't make it too difficult to spot meteors. The Lyrids shower often produces meteors with impressive dust trails that can last several seconds. You don't need a telescope to enjoy the show — just sit back in a comfy chair and watch bright dust trails flare across the sky.

Mercury at Greatest Western Elongation
On April 29th, Mercury reaches greatest western elongation of 27 degrees from the Sun. This is the best time to view Mercury since it will be at its highest point above the horizon in the morning sky. Use astronomy binoculars to view the planet low in the eastern sky just before sunrise.

April's Deep Sky Challenge: M87 in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster
This is a great challenge for experienced observers. It's been said that the jet of light, famous in photographs, emanating from the core of M87 can be observed visually in telescopes possibly as small as 10" from a dark sky location, on the clearest of nights.

If you're up for the challenge, try to view M87 as high in the sky as possible, and use as much magnification as the conditions permit. Look for a short streak of light emanating from the core, slightly brighter than the surrounding haze. The key to this challenge is finding the right viewing condition. When trying on different nights, note the visibility of the stellar core — this is a good indicator of the quality of the night and the suitability of a particular eyepiece. A Barlow like the Orion Shorty 1.25" 2x Barlow Lens and an eyepiece such as the 15mm Orion Expanse Telescope Eyepiece provide a good starting point for viewing.

With some patience and a dark, clear night, you may just find Virgo's hidden treasure. Good luck and clear skies!

This challenge is adapted from "Focus on Downtown Virgo" by Observing at Skyhound (https://www.skyhound.com/observing/archives/apr/M_86.html)

All objects described above can easily be seen with the suggested equipment from a dark sky site, a viewing location some distance away from city lights where light pollution and when bright moonlight does not overpower the stars.