Milky way galaxy with stars and space dust in the universe

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Milky way galaxy with stars and space dust in the universe

Photo by: Pakin Songmor

Pakin Songmor

Stuck at Home? What to See in the Night Sky this Month

In times of darkness and incertainty, opt for exploration of wonder in the skies.

April 03, 2020

Families around the world are dealing with the emerging disaster of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Schools are closed; non-essential activities are curtailed; and of the many techniques communities have employed to combat the virus, social distancing is perhaps the most effective. In short: we’re not going anywhere for a while.

But if you’re lucky enough to have a backyard, you can still escape. You just have to look up!

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Photo by: James Beresford

James Beresford

In the darkest, most rural parts of the world, you can see up to 3,000 stars, stretching from horizon to horizon. Most of you will probably see a lot less than that, so here are some standouts to help guide you.

In early April, step outside right around sunset and look westwards towards the setting sun. After it’s fallen below the horizon, look for a strangely bright star--that’s Venus, the second planet from the sun, sometimes called “Earth’s sister” (but that's a really horrible name since Venus is nothing like the Earth, but whatever). If you pull out the binoculars, you’ll get an extra special surprise and see Venus isn’t a solid disk, but a half-illuminated crescent, just like the moon.

If you wait for it to get a bit darker, you’ll see that Venus is sitting right next to a famous constellation: Pleiades, the “seven sisters”, a tight cluster of bright stars.

A picture of Messier 45, known as the pleiades star cluster or the Seven Sisters.

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A picture of Messier 45, known as the pleiades star cluster or the Seven Sisters.

Photo by: LazyPixel / Brunner Sébastien

LazyPixel / Brunner Sébastien

Towards the middle of April, if you live in the northern hemisphere, get up about an hour before dawn and gaze southeast. In that pre-dawn light, you’ll see three planets right in a row. Jupiter, the largest planet of the solar system, will blaze brightly as a solid point of light. Nearby will be Saturn and Mars. Even though Saturn is much more immense than the red planet, it will look just as bright because it’s so much further away. You’ll be able to tell the difference between them easily. Mars, the red planet, is…red, while Saturn glows as a slightly off-white.

The special treat in the middle of April is that the three planets will be joined by a lovely crescent moon.

Once the stars come out in the middle of the night, look for the Big Dipper in the northern sky. Once you spot the bowl and handle of the dipper, follow the curve of the handle away from the constellation and you’ll come across a bright orange star: Arcturus, part of the constellation Bootes (he’s a shepherd).

Located in Gwangdeok Mountain at 1,010 meters above sea level in Hwacheongun, Gangwondo, Cho Kyung-chul observatory was built to commemorate Dr. Cho Kyung-chul, a space scientist. It is famous as an astronomical observatory to see the Milky Way. Gangwondo province,South Korea

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Located in Gwangdeok Mountain at 1,010 meters above sea level in Hwacheongun, Gangwondo, Cho Kyung-chul observatory was built to commemorate Dr. Cho Kyung-chul, a space scientist. It is famous as an astronomical observatory to see the Milky Way. Gangwondo province,South Korea

Photo by: penboy

penboy

After Arcturus, continue following in a straight line to Spica. This blueish-white (or whiteish-blue, take your pick) is the brightest star of the constellation Virgo.

If you’re feeling really brave and adventurous, once you’ve reach Spica you can keep on going, slowly, over to the constellation Corvus the crow, which looks like a cute little four-pointed kite in the sky.

To recap: you follow the arc of the Dipper to reach Arcturus, then you speed on over to Spica, and lastly you crawl to Corvus.

Sigh. I know. It’s cheesy, but we’ve got to get creative when it comes to entertaining ourselves when we’re out of shows to watch.

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of How to Die in Space.

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