The University of Arizona

Skywatcher's Guides

Flandrau’s Observatory is operated entirely by volunteers. Please call ahead to see if the observatory is open (generally Thurs-Sat 7pm – 10pm). Our astronomer volunteers will help you experience the 16-inch telescope as well as answer your questions about the night sky.

Written by: Lucas Snyder (Flandrau Planetarium Operator)
Images contributed by: Tim Van DevenderAlistair Symon (Flandrau Telescope Operators), Nine Planets, and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS)

Navigationphoto by Tim Van Devender

Stars and Constellations

In April, the spring sky is now prominent in the east, along with the familiar Big Dipper.  The Big Dipper is high in the northeast, and the two stars at the end of the bowl can be used to find Polaris, our north star.  Also, the handle can be used to "arc to Arcturus", a bright star in the constellation Boötes. Next, Leo the lion is very high in the east, approaching the middle of the sky now, with the constellation Virgo just below.  The winter constellations are also visible, now in the west.  Taurus the bull is getting lower in the west, near Orion the hunter to the west-southwest.  Canis Major (the big dog), along with the bright star Sirius, is also getting low in the southwest.  Gemini the twins is a little higher in the west, along with Auriga the charioteer in the west-northwest and Canis Minor (the little dog) in the southwest.  The winter Milky Way is now getting lower in the west as well.  Far to the south we can see some constellations making up part of Jason's Argo Navis, which we only get to see briefly since it is so far south.  Finally, there is still a small portion of the fall sky still visible just for the first hour or so of the night.  Cassiopeia the queen is in the north-northwest, and Perseus the hero is in the northwest.

 

In May, the winter constellations are lower in the west, and Orion, Taurus, and Canis Major are already in the process of setting at the beginning of the night, along with Cassiopeia and Perseus to the northwest.  The spring constellations are higher now, and we can see the rest that weren't up this time last month.  Hercules is below Boötes in the east-northeast.  Some of the summer constellations are also getting ready to come up and will be visible a few hours after sunset.

 

 Interesting Stars Visible in April and May

 

Name / Designation

Apparent Magnitude
(lower = brighter)

Distance

(light-years)

Notes

Sirius

-1.44

8.6

 

Arcturus

-0.05

36.7

 

Vega

0.03

25

 

Capella

0.08

42

 

Rigel

0.18

770

 

Procyon

0.4

11

 

Betelgeuse

0.45

427

 

Altair

0.76

17

 

Aldeberan

0.87

65

 

Spica

0.98

262

 

Pollux

1.16

38

 

Markab

1.25

140

 

Deneb

1.25

3230

 

Regulus

1.36

77

means "Little King"

Castor

1.58

52

 

Polaris

1.97

431

 

Alpheratz or Sirrah

2.07

97

 

Mirach

2.07

199

 

Algol

2.09

93

variable star

Denebola

2.14

36.2

 

Almak

2.1 / 5.0 & 6.3

355

 triple star system w/ 64 yr orbit

Albireo

3.2 / 5.8 & 5.1

390 / 380

 possibly a triple star system

Eta Cassiopeiae

3.5 / 7.4

19

480 yr orbit

 

Solar System

Mars is sinking low in the west, and is only visible at the beginning of the night.  It is moving through Aries and into Taurus.

 

Venus is still getting higher each evening in the west after sunset, moving through Taurus in April and Gemini in May.

 

Jupiter is now high in the sky after sunset and visible for most of the night.  It is hovering in Cancer the Crab.

 

Saturn is coming up earlier each night, eventually coming up at sunset by the end of May. It is near the claws of Scorpius.

 

Mercury will be emerging from behind the Sun by the end of April and visible after sunset until mid-May.

 

Jupiter Great Red Spot Transits during April and May (when the Flandrau dome is open)

NOTE: The GRS is visible on the disk of Jupiter for 50 minutes before and after meridian transit time.

Date

Meridian Transit Time

04/04/15

08:26 PM

04/09/15

07:35 PM

04/11/15

09:14 PM

04/16/15

08:22 PM

04/23/15

09:10 PM

04/30/15

09:58 PM

05/15/15

07:27 PM

05/22/15

08:16 PM

05/29/15

09:04 PM

 

Calendar of Night Sky Events

 

04/04/15

Full Moon and Total Lunar Eclipse. Totality lasts only 5 minutes. Moon sets during eclipse.

04/06/15

Uranus at conjunction. Behind Sun.

04/08/15

Mercury and Uranus in conjunction. Separated by 0.5°.

04/09/15

Mercury at superior conjunction. Behind Sun.

04/11/15

Last Quarter Moon.

04/18/15

New Moon.

04/22/15

Mercury and Mars in conjunction. Separated by 1.3°.

04/22/15

Peak of Lyrids meteor shower.

04/25/15

First Quarter Moon.

05/03/15

Full Moon.

05/06/15

Mercury at greatest eastern elongation. Best viewing after sunset.

05/07/15

Peak of Eta Aquariids meteor shower.

05/11/15

Last Quarter Moon.

05/17/15

New Moon.

05/22/15

Saturn at opposition. Best time to see the ringed planet.

05/25/15

First Quarter Moon.

05/26/15

Mercury and Mars in conjunction. Separated by 1.6°.

05/30/15

Mercury at inferior conjuction. Between Earth and Sun.

 

Deep Sky

The winter Milky Way is now getting low in the west, but there are still several interesting objects we can see here.  The Pleiades (Seven Sisters, M45) is close to the west-northwest horizon right next to the Hyades (C41), which makes the face of Taurus the bull.  The constellation Auriga is a little bit higher, where we can see M36, M37, and M38, which are visible with binoculars.  The Double Cluster (C14) in Perseus is low in the north-northwest.  Higher in the sky we have the Beehive (Praesepe, M44) in Cancer the crab and Coma Berenices (Bernice's Hair) near the tail of Leo.

 

We are now beginning to see some globular clusters coming up in the east.  M3 is towards the east, in the constellation Boötes.  Nearby, the famous Hercules Globular (M13) is low to the east-northeast.

 

For nebulae, we have the spectacular Orion Nebula (M42) now now getting low to the west-southwest. This is the closest star-forming region to our solar system.  We also have some good planetary nebulae, which come from dying stars.  The Eskimo (C39) in Gemini is high in the west, the Owl (M97) in Ursa Major is high in the northeast, and the Ghost of Jupiter (C59) is to the south in the constellation Hydra.

 

And now the galaxies:  In Ursa Major to the north we have Bode's Galaxy (M81) and the Cigar Galaxy (M82), close enough to be seen together in a low-power telescope.  Nearby in the constellation Canes Venatici we have the Whirlpool (M51), which is a pair of colliding galaxies.  The Pinwheel Galaxy (M101) is also nearby near the handle of the Big Dipper.  Then the Sombrero Galaxy (M104) is in the southeast in the constellation Virgo.

 

 Interesting Deep Sky Objects to Observe during February and March

Designation

Name

Apparent Magnitude

Apparent Size

Distance

(light-years)

Type

Messier 45

Pleiades

1.6

110'

440

open cluster

Messier 31

Andromeda Galaxy

3.4

3° x 1°

2,900,000

spiral galaxy

Messier 44

Beehive Cluster

3.7

95'

577

open cluster

Messier 42

Orion Nebula

4

85' x 60'

1400-1600

diffuse nebula

Messier 33

Triangulum Galaxy

5.7

67' x 42'

3,000,000

spiral galaxy

Messier 81

Bode's Galaxy

8.5

21'

1,200,000

spiral galaxy

Messier 82

Cigar Galaxy

9.5

14'

1,200,000

galaxy

 

Frequently Asked Questions – How much of space have we explored?

While we can see billions of light years into space with a telescope, our spacecraft have not physically traveled close to even one light year away yet.  The farthest that humans have gone is only to the Moon.  However, while there is still a lot to explore, we have explored a great deal of our solar system with robotic spacecraft.

 

Humanity's first venture into space was with a German V2 rocket launch in 1944, reaching a height of about 100 miles.

 

Our first sucessful orbit of the earth was in 1957, with the Soviet Sputnik satellite.  Since then, we've launched thousands of earth-orbiting satellites.  Many of these still function, of course, but even more are no longer functional.

 

Our first craft to leave earth orbit was the Soviet Luna 1 probe in 1959, which flew past the moon and eventually into a heliocentric orbit.  The moon was therefore the first object (other than earth) to be visited by a spacecraft.  Later that year, Luna 2 actually crashed into the moon, marking our first physical contact with another solar system object.

 

The first probe to visit another planet was the Soviet Venera 1, which flew past Venus in 1961.  This one unfortuanetly lost communication before it got there.  The first successful flyby of Venus was the American Mariner 2 in 1962.

 

1961 also saw the first human launched into space, with the Soviet Vostok 1 orbiter.  Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin reached an altitude of about 200 miles above Earth's surface.

 

Our first physical contact with another planet was with the Soviet Venera 3 spacecraft, which is believed to have crashed into Venus in 1966.  However, it lost communication before reaching the planet.  The first successful impact was Venera 4 in 1967.

 

1966 also yielded the first successful soft landing on the moon, with the Soviet Luna 9 lander.  Also that year, Luna 10 became the first spacecraft to enter lunar orbit.

 

The first manned mission to leave Earth orbit was the American Apollo 8 capsule 1968, which circled the moon and returned safely to Earth.  The next year, Apollo 11 became the first mission where humans actually walked on the surface of the moon and returned samples to the Earth.

 

The first spacecraft to enter orbit around another planet was the American Mariner 9, which arrived at Mars in 1971.

 

There are many more milestones that could be listed, but to summarize, we have now visited all eight major planets in our solar system plus many of their moons, along with several asteroids and comets.  We have orbited five planets plus the sun, the moon, three asteroids, and a comet.  We have soft-landed or crashed onto three planets plus six other objects.  We have returned samples from our moon, an asteroid, a comet, and the solar wind.  We have sent spacecraft to the edge of our solar system, with the farthest one, Voyager 1, now in interstellar space.

 

If you have any questions you'd like me to answer in the next issue of SWG, please let me know.  I'm also happy to take suggestions or comments, and also pictures if you'd like to send them.  Happy viewing!

 

Table of Images (Click on an image to expand)

Sketches and Images - Image Credit (Tim Van Devender)

Mars

Mars

Saturn

Saturn

Jupiter

Jupiter

The Moon

The Moon

Jupiter and Io Moon Shadow

Jupiter and Io Moon Shadow

Messier 45 (Pleiades)

M45

NGC 884 and NGC 869 - Perseus Double Cluster

NGC 884 and NGC 869 - Perseus Double Cluster

NGC 2024 - The Horsehead and Flame Nebulae

NGC 2024 - The Horsehead and Flame Nebulae

NGC 2237 - The Rosette Nebula

NGC 2237 - The Rosette Nebula

NGC 2264

NGC 2264

Images from Alistair Symon
Messier 27 (Dumbbell Nebula)

M27

Mssier 31 (Andromeda Galaxy)

M31

Messier 33 (Triangulum Galaxy)

M33

Messier 45 (Pleiades)

M45

Messier 57 (Ring Nebula)

M57

Images from Nine Planets
Jupiter

Jupiter

The Moon

The Moon

Images from SEDS
Messier 13 (Hercules Globular Cluster)

M13

Messier 15

M15

Messier 27 (Dumbbell Nebula)

M27

Messier 31 (Andromeda Galaxy)

M31

Messier 33 (Triangulum Galaxy)

M33

Messier 44 (Beehive Cluster)

M44

Messier 45 (Pleiades)

M45

Messier 57 (Ring Nebula)

M57

NGC 7009 (The Saturn Nebula)

NGC 7009

NGC 7293 (The Helix Nebula)

NGC 7293

 

Bibliography

Cornelius, Geoffrey. The Starlore Handbook: an Essential Guide to the Night Sky. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle, 1997. Print.

Ottewell, Guy. Astronomical Calendar 2012. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2011. Print.

Ottewell, Guy. Astronomical Calendar 2013. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2012. Print.

Ottewell, Guy. The Astronomical Companion. 2nd ed. Raynham, Mass: Universal Workshop, 2010. Print.

 

Astronomy Magazine. February 2013. Volume 41, No 2.

Astronomy Magazine. February 2013. Volume 41, No 3.

Sky & Telescope. February 2013. Volume 125, No 2.

Sky & Telescope. March 2013. Volume 125, No 3.