For millennia, humankind have looked to the night skies and simply wondered. In a way, the familiar and seemingly unchanging patterns in the night sky connect peoples from all around the globe. Unfortunately, this connection and wonder is being eroded by our modern, light-filled, urban lifestyles.

April 15th to 21st 2018 marks International Dark Sky Week, and what better excuse could there be to venture outside with friends and engage with the skies as our forebears did. If you planned to do some summertime stargazing but didn’t quite make it, try not to let the thought of winter further subvert your plans. In April we may still get the odd ‘mild’ evening but even if we don’t it is amazing what a beanie, scarf, jacket, fingerless gloves, thick socks, and a hot cuppa can do! Actually, the wintery months bring with them some advantages for the stargazing enthusiast. To start with we have more ‘night’ to play with and often a more settled atmosphere making for clearer viewing.

Throughout the winter evenings, the incredible vista of the Milky Way stretches above our heads from horizon to horizon. Binoculars reveal rich star fields along its path and to either side but especially so in the regions of Scorpius, Sagittarius, and Crux. A few sweeps and you will become familiar with some of them!

Not all star clusters require telescopes. The glimmering Matariki cluster is one that can be seen with the naked eye. During April it becomes increasingly difficult to see as it sinks towards the Sun’s glare after sunset. It is then lost to our view in May as Earth’s orbit effectively puts the Sun in the way. Happily, it re-emerges in early June just before sunrise on the northeastern horizon – thus heralding the Matariki festivals.

While a bright Moon can spoil our view of these fainter ‘deep sky objects’, it is stunning to look at with binoculars and small telescopes. In the evenings, it is best viewed from its thin crescent phase to just beyond first quarter. Long shadows can be seen along the terminator (where night meets day) highlighting its craters, valleys, and mountains.

The arc of the ecliptic, where the Moon and planets reside, is much higher in the sky in winter than in summer. This makes for better viewing of these objects. Small good quality telescopes will reveal the four Galilean moons of Jupiter and Saturn’s stunning rings with great clarity. You may also see the coloured bands of Jupiter’s cloud tops. There has been a famine of evening planets over the summer but the natural cycle of things is coming to our rescue over the next months. Jupiter has already entered our evening sky to the east and as the months progress, Saturn and Mars join in as well. Venus will be prominent in the northwest early winter through spring with Mercury making an appearance below Venus in July.

Something special is happening with Mars this year. On 31st July when it reaches opposition (the point at which it is exactly in line with Earth and the Sun) it will be the closest it has been since 2003. In that year it was the closest it had been for 60,000 years and this time it will be just 3% further away. Still pretty good. Stardome will host special events over this time so there will be no reason to miss out!

During and after our evening planetarium shows, weather permitting, our courtyard telescopes are staffed by our enthusiastic staff and volunteers. These guys love to show you some of these wonders in the sky and answer your questions about them. Come along to enjoy a planetarium show and the viewing is included, or, you can pay the basic entry fee for our Space Gallery and enjoy the telescopes as well. 

Finally, the ever-changing night sky is a fascinating vista best appreciated by patient and prepared eyes. By subscribing to our monthly ‘Space News’ you’ll have access to our Sky Spotter column, which if read in conjunction with our Star Charts or a night sky app, will help you learn seasonal highlights of the night sky, spot the Moon, planets, and spectacular conjunctions.

PS: For the meteor enthusiast the eta-Aquarids may be worth waiting up for in early May. 

April Stargazing

Image: “Glacier V Man” by Mikey MacKinven