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What's Up for April 2014

So. You are keen to get out there and do some observing. The stars are out. But which is which?

When you are a beginner, there's a lot to learn in a short time. But you don't have to go it alone – we're here to help. This page will get you started. Even so, the only way you can really do it is to go out and see for yourself.

It may be April but it can get pretty cold out there, so put your coat on. We don't want frozen Young Astronomers on our hands. And knowing that some of our readers are Old Astronomers, this applies to them, too. The more comfortable you are, the better you will enjoy stargazing. Who cares what you look like – no one can see you. And a bobble hat helps, too. A hoodie? That's up to you, as long as the hood doesn't cover your eyes when you look up....

You will need a star map, and you will need to know how it works. This may seem obvious, but there is a knack to understanding these things. Here's our map for this month:

Whole sky for April 2014

All maps produced using Stellarium software.

Wrong way round?

Now don't write in and tell us that we have the points of the compass all wrong. This is a map of the sky, so you have to hold it over your head. When you do this, east and west will be the right way round.

It shows the whole sky, so the scale is quite small. Normally you turn to see different parts of it, so to see the view looking north, for example, hold the map upside down with north at the bottom.

The map shows the sky in mid month at about 10 pm, at the start of the month at 11 pm, or by the end of the month at 9 pm, though by then it will be too light to see much at that time. Anyone would think it was summer. All times are BST.  

TIP If you aren't sure of the direction of north from your location, click here for a page on Getting Your Bearings.

Making sense of the stars

If it all looks just like a lot of dots, and drives you dotty, here's the way to get to grips with the sky. Start with something familiar and work from there. Most people recognise the seven stars that in the UK we call the Plough and in the US is called the Big Dipper. If you can't find it, it's because you arn't looking high enough – it's almost above your head at this time of year, so it's shown at the centre of this map.

Look below the Plough, about halfway between there and the horizon, and you will see a group of stars caleld Leo. Now use the map below to find more patterns nearby, but don't expect to see those convenient lines helping you to see the patterns. If you do see them, consult an optician or give back those glasses your friends gave you on 1 April.

Sky for April  2014

Other constellations to look for

Leo is the main constellation in this part of the sky, and it's very recognisable. There are some nice groups of galaxies in it which you can find with a telescope, so click here to find out more.

Above and to the right of Leo are two bright stars, called Castor and Pollux. These are the main stars of Gemini, the Twins. Click to find out more about these stars and the constellation.

Between Leo and Gemini, and quite hard to see on this map, is the constellation of Cancer. To find out more about this famous but rather secretive bit of sky, click here.

Lower down and to the left of Leo is Virgo with its bright star Spica. Another way to find Spica is to go up to the Plough and follow the curve of its handle round. First you come to a very bright star, Arcturus, and then you come to Spica, which is a lot lower in the sky. On the map is marked a sort of Y shape, which is quite easy to pick out, which helps you to spot Virgo. Saturn is also there this year, to the east of Spica and a bit brighter.

If you want a map with all the constellation names on it, click here.

This month's bright planets

Mars photographed through a  Sky-Watcher Explorer 130 mm telescope on 15 March

You can't miss Jupiter as it's the brightest object in the night sky (apart from the Moon). It's over in the south-west, quite high up. It is worth looking at it through binoculars, as you should see three or four of its moons like tiny stars on either side of it. With a telescope you can see a couple of its dark equatorial belts as well. This is because planets have tiny discs, whereas stars are points of light. Starlight is easily disturbed as it passes through our turbulent atmosphere, which is what causes twinkling.

Mars is also around, lower down in the south-east. It's above and to the right of the bright star Spica, and these are the two brightest stars in this part of the sky. Mars is in the evening skies every two years, so don't leave it until next year to take a look – you won't find it then. The planet is at its closest to Earth on 8 April, when it will be 93 million km away. This isn't as close as it can ever get – the planet has quite an elliptical orbit, so in some years it's better than others. This is a so-so year, when it's 15 arc seconds across. That's only about a third the size that Jupiter appears in the sky, but if you have a telescope do take a look.

You should be able to see its disc, and if you are lucky you may see one or two dark markings. Its north polar cap is tilted towards us at the moment, but it's summer on Mars and the cap is not very obvious. If you do see a bright patch to one side, it's more likely to be early morning cloud on the planet.

Saturn is in the late evening sky at the moment, over in the south-east, and just misses out on being on the map. It rises around 10 pm, bit isn't really obvious for an hour or so. 

Meteor shower

Around 22 April you might notice a few meteors – shooting stars. The annual Lyrid shower is at its maximum, but don't expect to see them pouring out of the sky. There are only likely to be around 10 an hour even under ideal conditions, which in practice never actually apply, so consider yourself lucky if you see one or two. They will appear to come from the general direction of Vega, over to the top left of the map at the top. Others could appear, which are not part of this shower. For more details, see our Meteor Section page on the shower.

Where's the Moon?

It begins the month at new Moon, which was on 30 March, and you might see it after sunset in the west as a very slender crescent on the 1st, then as a fatter crescent in the evenings following.  Then first quarter (the evening half Moon) is on the 7th. Full Moon is on the 15th so not much observing of faint objects will be possible then. Finally, last quarter is on the 22nd. 
There's an eclipse of the Moon this month, on the 15th. But don't get too excited – it will hardly be visible from the UK. The Moon starts to enter the Earth's shadow at about 5.50, but the Moon sets not long afterwards. It will be rather low in the western sky – higher up the farther north and west you are – so it will be tricky to see anyway.
We have a whole section of this site about the Moon and what to observe, so do take a look.

Get more helpful info

OK, you've read all this for nothing, now comes the plug. This page is brought to you by the Society for Popular Astronomy, which is a really great society to join. It's based in the UK but there are members in other countries as well. It doesn't cost much to join, and there is a special rate for Young Stargazers. At least take a look at what we have to offer. 
Text by Robin Scagell