You can’t go out with your mates these days so you are keen to get out there and do some observing tonight. 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:
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. It is shown for the UK, but will also work fairly well for Europe and North America.
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 British Summer Time.
|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, rather than the load of odd animals and bits of human beings that some sky maps show, 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 aren’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 called 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.
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 usually 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.
If you want a map with all the constellation names on it, click here.
This month’s bright planets
There’s just one planet around during the evening this month, and that’s Venus. You can’t miss it, and it has been around over in the western sky after sunset all this year. But it’s starting to close in towards the Sun now, as seen in the sky, and by next month it will be gone. It is moving closer to Earth in its orbit, which all Young Stargazers know is inside the orbit of Earth. If you get the chance to look at it through a telescope you’ll see that it’s showing a crescent phase, and because it’s getting progressively more in line with the Sun the crescent will get larger but thinner, as the diagram below shows. Next month it will get larger still. And as the planet gets closer and larger, it gets even brighter.
Mars, Saturn and Jupiter (in that order, from left to right) are in the early morning sky at the moment, quite close together down in the south before dawn. They will be in the evening sky during the summer months so will be easier to observe then.
Mercury is too close to the Sun to be seen from the UK.
Around 21-22 April you should look out for few meteors – shooting stars. The annual Lyrid meteor shower is then at its maximum, but this year the event coincides with a new Moon so won’t be around to brighten the sky and make it harder to see the meteors.
There are only likely to be around 15 meteors an hour even under ideal conditions, which in practice never actually applies, so don’t expect anything spectacular. They will appear to come from the general direction of Vega, over to the top left of the map at the top of the page. Others could appear, which are not part of this shower. For more details, see our Meteor Section page on the shower.
And even a comet
Yes, that’s right, there’s a comet around this month, called Comet C/2019 Y4 (Atlas). Don’t get too excited – it’s not very bright at the moment. It’ll be easier to see next month, but if you’re keen to get a head start on everyone else then take a look at our main news story. That will show you where to look, but you’ll need binoculars or a telescope to see it this month.
Where’s the Moon?
At the very start of the month the Moon is at first quarter (which is a half Moon), then full Moon is on the 8th. Last quarter is on the 14th, and new Moon is on the 23rd. The month ends with another first quarter, on the 30th.
If it’s clear on the 24th take a look low in the west about half an hour after sunset, below Venus, and you might spot the very thin crescent Moon. It’ll be easier to see on the 25th, then on the 26th it’s quite close to Venus. A pretty sight, and worth a photo. Sorry, no eclipses this month.
We have a whole section of the website devoted to the Moon and its features.
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