WHAT'S UP THIS MONTH - APRIL 2017
(Link to What's up - May 2017)
(Link to What's up - March 2017)
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THESE PAGES ARE INTENDED TO HELP YOU FIND YOUR WAY AROUND THE SKY
Click HERE for a downloadable white chart
The chart above shows the whole night sky as it appears on 15th April at 22:00 (10 o'clock) in the evening British Summer Time (BST). As the Earth orbits the Sun and we look out into space each night the stars will appear to have moved across the sky by a small amount. Every month Earth moves one twelfth of its circuit around the Sun, this amounts to 30 degrees each month. There are about 30 days in each month so each night the stars appear to move about 1 degree. The sky will therefore appear the same as shown on the chart above at 10 o'clock BST at the beginning of the month and at 8 o'clock BST at the end of the month. The stars also appear to move 15º (360º divided by 24) each hour from east to west, due to the Earth rotating once every 24 hours.
The centre of the chart will be the position in the sky directly overhead, called the Zenith. First we need to find some familiar objects so we can get our bearings. The Pole Star Polaris can be easily found by first finding the familiar shape of the Great Bear ‘Ursa Major' that is also sometimes called the Plough or even the Big Dipper by the Americans. Ursa Major is visible throughout the year from Britain and is always quite easy to find. This month it is directly overhead. Look for the distinctive saucepan shape, four stars forming the bowl and three stars forming the handle. Follow an imaginary line, up from the two stars in the bowl furthest from the handle. These will point the way to Polaris which will be to the north of overhead at about 50º above the northern horizon. Polaris is the only moderately bright star in a fairly empty patch of sky. When you have found Polaris turn completely around and you will be facing south. To use this chart, position yourself looking south and hold the chart above your eyes..
Planets observable in the evening sky: Mercury and Jupiter. Saturn and Venus are visible in the morning before dawn.
EXPLORING THE NIGHT SKY THIS MONTH
The Southern Night Sky during April 2017 at 21:00 BST (9:00 pm)
The chart above shows the night sky looking south at about 21:00 BST on 15th April. West is to the right and east to the left. The point in the sky directly overhead is known as the Zenith and is shown at the upper centre of the chart. The curved brown line across the sky at the bottom is the Ecliptic or Zodiac. This is the imaginary line along which the Sun, Moon and planets appear to move across the sky. The constellations through which the ecliptic passes are known as the constellations of the ‘Zodiac'.
Constellations through which the ecliptic passes this month are: Aries (the Ram), Taurus (the Bull), Gemini (the Twins), Cancer (the Crab), Leo (the Lion), Virgo (the Virgin) and Libra (the Scales) just appearing over the eastern horizon.
The Milky Way (our Galaxy) appears to rise up from the south western horizon. It continues up through the constellations of Monoceros, Orion, Gemini, Auriga, Perseus and into Cassiopeia off the top right of the chart.
The winter constellation of Orion is moving closer to the western horizon. To the North West and sitting astride the ecliptic is the constellation of Taurus (the Bull). The Taurus asterism (shape) looks like a squashed cross ‘X'. The winter constellations are still visible soon after the Sun sets.
The constellation of Gemini (the Twins) is easy to find by looking for the twin stars Pollux and Castor. There is a lovely Messier Open Cluster M35 in Gemini just off the end of the line of stars emanating from the bright star Castor. Castor is a double star when seen in a telescope with a third more distant companion nearby.
To the east of Gemini is the faint and rather indistinct constellation of Cancer (the Crab). The asterism (shape) of Cancer looks quite uninteresting but the Open Cluster Messier 44 (M44) Praesepe or the Beehive Cluster looks beautiful and like a swarm of bees around an old style hive when seen using binoculars. Following Cancer is Leo (the Lion) with is distinctive ‘hook' shaped asterism looking like a sickle or a back to front question mark (?).
Following Leo to the east along the ecliptic is the constellation of Virgo (the Virgin). The constellation shape is comprised of mainly fairly faint stars except Spica which is easy to find. Jupiter is located in Virgo just above Spica so the bright planet can be used to locate Virgo. Just rising over the eastern horizon is the constellation of Libra (the Scales).
Directly overhead this month is the best known of all the constellations Ursa Major (the Great Bear) also known as the Plough or the Big Dipper to the Americans. The main asterism (shape) actually looks most like a saucepan. The star half way along the saucepan handle is called Mizar and is a naked eye double star. The companion star to Mizar is called Alcor and is just visible to most people but can be easily seen using binoculars. Mizar is also a double star itself but needs a telescope to separate the pair. Amazingly each of the stars of the Mizar pair are also very close double stars that are too close together to be separated using a telescope. This makes the Mizar and Alcor system a five star associated system.
The planet Jupiter is very noticeable in the eastern sky soon after sunset in the constellation of Virgo. See the Constellation of the Month below. Mars is still just visible close to the western horizon, in the constellation of Aires, as the sky darkens after sunset.
CONSTELLATION OF THE MONTH – Virgo (the Virgin)
The location of Jupiter in the constellation of Virgo this month
Virgo is not a very distinctive constellation but it is easy to locate this year because it is host the planet Jupiter . With Jupiter as a guide the bright star Spica can be located to the south. The recognised shape of Virgo may be difficult to identify from a light polluted area because most the stars are not very bright.
Virgo is one of the twelve constellations of the Zodiac therefore it sits on the Ecliptic (the imaginary line along which the Sun, Moon and planets appear to move across the sky). It is preceded to the west along the ecliptic by Leo (the Lion) and followed by Libra (the Scales) to the east. The virgin most commonly associated with Virgo is Erigone, the daughter of Icarius of Athens. Icarius, was killed by his drunken shepherds and Erigone hanged herself in grief. In the middle ages the Virgin was often associated with the Virgin Mary.
Spica is the brightest star in the constellation of Virgo and the 16 th brightest star in the night sky. Analysis of its parallax shows that it is located 250 light years from the Sun. It is a spectroscopic binary and rotating ellipsoidal variable; a system whose two main stars are so close together they are egg-shaped rather than spherical and can only be separated by their spectra. The primary is a blue giant and a variable star of the Beta Cephei type. As Spica is always low it appears to sparkle due to air turbulence.
The main interest in Virgo is the presence of a famous cluster of galaxies. Although it is known as the Virgo Cluster it does spill over into the neighbouring constellation of Coma Berenices. The Virgo Cluster is comprised of approximately 1300 (possibly up to 2000) member galaxies and the cluster forms the heart of the larger Virgo Super-cluster.
Our galaxy and about 30 other nearby galaxies are called the Local Custer. It is comprised of two large spiral galaxies Messier 31 (M31) in Andromeda and our Milky Way Galaxy. The other galaxies in our Local Cluster are some smaller spirals like M33 and some smaller Irregular Galaxies. Our Local Group forms a part of the Virgo / Coma Berenices Galaxy Cluster. The largest galaxy in the cluster is a super giant Elliptical Galaxy called Messier 87 (M87) that dominates the Virgo cluster.
An overview of the Virgo / Coma Berenices Galaxy Cluster
Messier 87 (also known as M87 or NGC 4486 ) is a supergiant elliptical galaxy at the centre of the Virgo Cluster. It is one of the most massive galaxies in our local universe and contains more than a trillion stars. It is also notable for its large population of globular clusters. M87 contains about 12,000 compared to the 150 or so orbiting the Milky Way.
Messier 87 (M87) A super Giant Elliptical Galaxy
M87 has one of the largest black holes that has been found and may be as massive as 3.5 trillion times the mass of our Sun. See the special article about Compact Objects for more about Super Massive Black Holes. M87 also has a huge powerful jet of highly energetic plasma that originates at the galaxy core (the Super Massive Black Hole) that extends outward at least 4,900 light-years and is travelling at very high speed.
JUPITER AND ITS MOONS
Jupiter and three of its moons imaged by Steve Harris (Newbury Astronomical Society)
Last month we started thinking about observing Jupiter and the beautiful detail that is visible using a larger telescope but Jupiter's larger moons are also very interesting. A small telescope or even a good pair of 9 x 50 binoculars will show the four brightest moons known as the Galilean Moons. These four bright moons are called the ‘Galilean Moons' after Galileo Galilei who first recorded seeing them.
The moons are too small to see any detail using a small telescope but their positions can be observed using a basic small and reasonably good quality telescope. A good pair of 9 x 50 binoculars may just about show the moons but a pair of 15 x 70 binoculars will show them well. The larger binoculars will need to be supported using a tripod or some other device to enable them to be held steady. The moons can be observed to have moved noticeably over the course of an evening's viewing.
A computer planetarium application can be downloaded free from the internet to predict the events happening around Jupiter and then followed using a telescope. One of the best and most popular computer planetarium applications to download is ‘Stellarium'. This and other applications can be used to identify the moons and predict what is going to happen to Jupiter and its moons during any clear night before observing is started.
It can be fun to make simple sketches perhaps once every hour showing the positions of the moons. With three or four simple sketches in a book the movements of the moons around their orbits can be monitored and can be followed from night to night.
Sometimes it is possible to see the moons pass in front or behind Jupiter or pass above or below the planet. This makes observing Jupiter very interesting. We can watch the moons approach the planet to disappear behind or in front of Jupiter and then watch them reappear an hour or two later. We can also see their shadows as they pass in front and project their shadow on to the planet. These events can be predicted using a planetarium application and the events can then be followed and timed using a fairly modest telescope. These special events can be timed, monitored and recorded with sketches as they happen and can be checked against the predictions.
Eclipses occur when a moon casts its shadow on to Jupiter. It is quite easy to see because the eclipse shadow looks like a black full stop on the planet. Moons can also be eclipsed as they pass through the very large shadow cast by Jupiter.
Transits occur when a moon passes in front of Jupiter. The moon is actually very difficult to see while it is in front of the planet as it is lost in the glare from the surface.
Occultations occur when a moon passes behind the planet. Occultations and Transits are easy to follow with a telescope as the moon approaches Jupiter.
Using and accurate clock (a radio controlled clock is best) the actual times of the event can be annotated to the sketches to make them more interesting and scientific. The times can also be compared to the times predicted by the planetarium programme .
Jupiter's four largest moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto
Our earth bound telescopes cannot see detail on the surface of Jupiter's moons but robotic probes have given us an insight into the amazing nature of these alien moons. With a telescope we can see these moons for ourselves but visiting probes have helped us to appreciate what these mysterious, distant moons are really like.
Io is the innermost of the four large moons that Galileo discovered and is the third largest at 3,630km in diameter which is slightly larger than Earth's Moon that is 3,476km. Io orbits Jupiter every 1.77 Earth days at a distance of 421,000km from Jupiter. When seen up close the surface resembles a pizza. Io is the most volcanically active body in the Solar System. It is so close to Jupiter that it is nearly torn apart by the gravitational forces of Jupiter and the larger moons orbiting outside it. Gravitational forces stretch and squash Io, producing tides that cause the rocky surface to rise and fall by about 100m every 9 hours. This produces enormous pressure and friction forces that generate heat inside the moon. This internal heat causes continuous volcanic action on the surface. The volcanic activity was not known about until the Galileo probe took close up images in 1995. Huge plumes from erupting volcanoes were seen on the edge of the moon.
Images of Io taken by Galileo in 1995
Io was expected to have similar features to our own Moon so the scientists were amazed at what they could see in the first images returned. When it was realised that there were volcanoes on Io the Galileo probe was programmed to make special close fly-by encounters with the moons including Io. One of the big questions was ‘are the volcanoes like those on Earth?' or ‘are they more like geysers just venting gas from a frozen surface?'.
Galileo was ordered to make a very close fly-by to enable it to take close up high resolution images of the surface. These images revealed truly amazing pictures of molten rock lava flowing across the surface of Io.
Galileo's image of molten lava on the surface of Io
The volcanic eruptions on Io not only cover the surface of the moon with multi-coloured deposits of Sulphur but also send gas and particles out of Io's gravitational grip and into orbit around Jupiter. This adds to the fine ring structure found around Jupiter by the visiting probes.
Europa is the second large moon out from Jupiter and is the smallest of the four at 3,138km in diameter (slightly smaller than our Moon) . The ice on the surface reflects 10 times more sunlight than the surface of our moon, making its surface the brightest of Jupiter's moons.
The moon is thought to be comprised mainly of water ice and is believed to have a 70 to 100km thick layer of water and ice that covers the surface of this, the smoothest moon in the solar system. The surface is criss-crossed with huge cracks probably caused by powerful tidal forces produced by the gravity of Jupiter. Radar scans have indicated that there may be a liquid salty water ocean beneath the 20km to 30km thick water ice crust.
The image below shows the surface is cracked, with the cracks coloured on either side. This effect is seen on Earth where pack ice cracks and the sea wells up through the crack and freezes on the surface leaving a stain caused [on Earth] by bacteria in the sea. It may be possible that there is some kind of life in the salty ocean below the ice so there is a lot of interest to send a probe there to find out.
A close-up image of the surface cracks on Europa
Europa appears to have a metallic (Iron) core surrounded by an outer core of frozen water. The liquid salty water sea appears to be about 80km deep and covered by a 20km thick crust of frozen water. This means Europa may have up to three times the amount of water we have on Earth.
A diagram showing the interior of Europa
Ganymede is the largest moon in the solar system (5,263km in diameter). It orbits Jupiter in about 7.16 (Earth) days at just over 1 million km from Jupiter. Ganymede is the only moon known to have a magnetosphere and that indicates it may have a hot (<1500°K) liquid Iron core. Polar ice caps have been detected that may be formed by water molecules migrating along the magnetic force lines and being deposited at the poles. There may be a multilayered water and ice surface layer up to 800 km deep. It is suspected that there may be a deep liquid layer of water at the ice / rock interface.
The surface has many fault lines, resembling a ploughed field. These strange ‘furrow' like features are 100m high and 10km wide and caused by ice movements on the surface. From a distance it resembles our Moon with large dark areas and smaller lighter patches. However its density is much less and appears to have a large proportion of its mass made of water ice. Radar probes have revealed that there may be large pieces of rock suspended in the ice layers. This indicates that much of the water is frozen solid but there may some liquid water layers.
The ‘furrow' like features on the surface of Ganymede
The ‘furrows' have few craters compared to the rest of the surface indicating that they have been formed more recently. This leads scientists to conclude that there must have been activity in the interior of Ganymede long after it was formed. There is no evidence that the sub surface activity is currently active.
Callisto, unlike the other three large moons, appears not to have any noticeable internal activity or source of heat. Consequently the surface is old and has one of the most heavily cratered surfaces in the Solar System. Callisto is a large moon with a diameter of 4,800km orbiting Jupiter at 1.8 million km and takes 16.69 (Earth) days to complete each orbit .
Callisto showing the heavily cratered surface
Callisto would be very interesting to visit because it appears to have what may be the oldest undisturbed surface in our Solar System. Samples of this surface may be able to tell us about the original constitution of the nebula that our Sun and the planets formed in.
Positions of Jupiter's moons at the beginning of April at 01:00
The images below show the position of Jupiter's moons at 1 o'clock in the morning for the 1st week in April
THE PLANETS THIS MONTH
MERCURY will be visible in the west at the beginning of the month and will move into inferior conjunction (between us and the Sun) on 20th April. It will rise just before the Sun at the end of the month but will not be visible as it will be too close to the eastern horizon and in the brightening sky.
Mercury, Venus and Neptune in the east at sunrise
VENUS has disappeared out of the evening sky and was at Inferior Conjunction on 25th March. This means it was positioned directly between us (on Earth) and the Sun. It is now making its appearance in the early morning sky before sunrise in the east at about 03:30. See the chart above. Venus was at its closest approach to Earth, as it undertook us along its orbit on the inside of us. It will appear similar to the image below but the opposite way round because it is now to west of the Sun whereas before Inferior Conjunction it was to the east. Over the coming months it will appear to move further to the west of the Sun and rise earlier in the morning and higher in the sky. At the same time the crescent shape will grow wider but the apparent diameter of Venus will appear to shrink. The area illuminated by the Sun will remain about the same so it will appear to be about the same brightness at around magnitude -4.5. The apparent diameter will become smaller because Venus will be moving away from us as it moves along its smaller orbit until it reaches its next Superior Conjunction (the opposite side of the Sun to us) on 9th January 2018.
Venus takes only 225 days to orbit the Sun. However, when it is viewed from Earth, the full synodic cycle (from one inferior conjunction to the next inferior conjunction with the Sun) takes 584 days or about 1.6 years. This is due to the interaction of the 225 day orbital period Venus with the 365 day orbital period of the Earth. In other words because Earth is also moving around its orbit it takes Venus 584 days to catch Earth up again.
Venus imaged by Steve Knight on 15th March
MARS will be in the south west as the Sun is setting and the sky begins to darken. The Red Planet appears small at just 4.1 arc-seconds in diameter and is fading to magnitude +1.5. Mars is getting low in the turbulent air near the horizon and will set at 21:50. The red planet is now getting difficult to see as it moves closer to the western horizon and into the bright dusk sky.
JUPITER is now a good late evening object. It rises over the eastern horizon at 18:30 and will be observable by mid evening towards the end of the month. A pair of binoculars will reveal the four brightest of Jupiter's moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Even a small telescope will allow the moons to be seen very clearly.
SATURN will be visible in the brightening dawn sky close to the south eastern horizon. The ringed planet rises at about 00:00 this month, this about 4 hours before the Sun. The view of Saturn will not be good as it is still quite close to the Sun and rather low. It is observable in the south east from 02:00 until the sky begins to brighten before sunrise.
It will also be low and close to the south eastern horizon in turbulent and dirty air. Saturn will remain low in the sky this year so the views will not be perfect but the rings are nearly wide open so should still look very impressive. A medium sized telescope (100 to 150mm aperture and 150x magnification) will be required to see the rings well.
Saturn in the south at 04:00
URANUS rises just after the Sun so will be in daylight and not observable. It will set before the Sun in the west at 18:46 so will not be visible.
NEPTUNE rises in the east at 04:00 so will, in theory, be observable before the Sun rises. However it will be close to the south eastern horizon and very difficult to see.
There are still occasional sunspots to see even though the active phase of the Solar Cycle is all but over.
These lovely sunspots were visible on 30th March 2017 (SOHO image)
The Sun rises at 05:30 at the beginning of the month and at 04:40 by the end of the month. It will be setting at 18:35 at the beginning and 19:30 at the end of the month. Sunspots and other activity on the Sun can be followed live and day to day by visiting the SOHO website at :
THE MOON PHASES IN APRIL
First Quarter will be on 3rd April
Full Moon will be on 11th April
Last Quarter will be on 19th April
New Moon will be on 26th April
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