Orion and His Gang are Leaving Us!
We start this month with a growing moon in the evening sky and a full moon over the weekend. On Saturday morning we'll even have another total lunar eclipse but there's a catch. We won't see the whole thing, because just before the full moon becomes totally eclipsed it will set below the western horizon. What a tease! We will see the partial eclipse leading up to totality though. That will begin at 5:16 am, just before morning twilight begins. At that time the left side of the setting moon will start to go dark as the moon enters the Earth's shadow.
In addition to the total lunar eclipse tease there's much to see in the April night skies. All winter long we've been dazzled and amazed by the bright luminaries that make up the cast of what I call "Orion and his gang". When you gaze upward into the late winter-early spring skies you can't help but see those three distinct stars that make up the belt of the mighty hunter, the constellation Orion. It's just one of well over five dozen constellations that we can see in our great celestial dome through the course of the year, but as far as I'm concerned Orion's the king! It's one of the few constellations that looks like what it's supposed to be. No matter how much light pollution you have to put up with he's easily visible. Without too much imagination you can see the torso of a muscular man with the bright star Rigel marking his left knee and Betelgeuse, a bright and noticeably orange-ish star, at his right armpit.
At nightfall, which is considerably later in April, Orion starts out in the southwestern sky, leaning to the right. Surrounding Orion is his gang of bright constellations that almost jump out at you. Orion's stellar family includes Taurus the bull, resembling a small downward pointing arrow; Auriga the chariot driver turned goat farmer; Gemini the Twins; and Canis Major and Canis Minor, Orion's large and small hunting dogs respectively.
This is the swan song for Orion's gang. As April slides into May, Orion and his stellar cast will open each evening closer and closer to the western horizon. By the end of next month most of the starry entourage of winter will already be below the horizon at the end of evening twilight. We'll see them again in the evening around early November as they enter the eastern heavens.
In the high northern sky the Big Dipper is putting on quite a show, hanging upside down in the early evening. One of the old yarns of the past is that we have more rain in the spring because the Big Dipper is upside down, dumping on us Earthlings. As bright and distinct as the Big Dipper is, it's not a constellation all by itself, but makes up the rear end and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, otherwise known as the Big Bear.
Over in the eastern sky the main constellation attraction is Leo the Lion, another one of those rare constellations that resembles what it's supposed to be. The constellation actually comes in two parts. The upper right side is an easy to see backward question mark leaning to the left that outlines the chest and head of the king of the big celestial cat. The moderately bright star that makes up the period of the question mark is the star Regulus, marking the heart of the Lion. To the lower left of the starry query symbol is a fairly bright triangle that makes up the rear and tail of Leo.
Leo the Lion has a celestial visitor this year, the planet Jupiter. It's shining just to the west or right of the backward question mark. Jupiter is by far the brightest "star" in that part of the sky. Despite being well over 400 million miles away this month, it shines so brilliantly because it's such a big planet, way bigger than our own world. With even a small telescope you can see up to four of Jupiter's larger moons and maybe some of its cloud bands on the 88,000 mile-wide planet.
Over in the low southeast sky is one of those constellations that doesn't look at all like what it's supposed to be. It's Corvis the Crow, and all there is to it are four stars that make a lopsided trapezoid. Good luck seeing that as a crow. There's also a giant kite rising not far away in the low eastern sky. That's the constellation Bootes the Farmer, with the bright star Arcturus at the tail of the big kite.