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  • Rapt in Awe

    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

April (2013) events: The changing of the (planetary) Guard and a Comet – still

Ahhh . . . Saturn! We love you – afterall, you brought us Saturn-day! And before I get, you still have a chance to see Comet PanSTARRS in binoculars – mark April 4 on your calendar – though it is growing quite dim.

But let’s start with Saturn In  April 2013 we have Saturn taking over the dominant planet duties from Jupiter – though Jupiter will still be with us even next month, it will get lower and lower in the west, making observing it’s wonderful moons more and more difficult for the binocular user – though next month it will have an interesting naked-eye encounter with a couple other planets.

Saturn, which has been dominating morning skies for months, becomes seriously dominant in the evening sky this month. In fact on April 28th it is at “opposition,” one of those technical terms which is easy to remember because all it means is it will be the “opposite” the Sun in our sky. That is, as the Sun sets in the west, Saturn will rise in the east. But even on the first of April it put in an appearance low in the southeast within a few hours of sunset for a nice triangle of bright “stars” with  Arcturus (our guide star for this month), and the icy, blue Spica.

saturn_rising

Click image for a much larger version of this chart. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Click this link for a version of this chart suitable for printing: saturn_rising

Saturn will be just a few magnitudes dimmer than brilliant, zero magnitude, Arcturus and brighter than Spica, though it will be interesting to do a color comparison between these last two. Wait until they’re both pretty high and Saturn should be a creamy yellow, Spica a very definite blue. (Near the horizon they will appear to twinkle madly and flash all sorts of colors due to  our atmosphere. )

Of course Saturn’s main appeal is in the telescope – even the smallest of scopes should reveal it’s beautiful ring system which this month is well placed for observing. (Some times the ring are almost edge-on from our point of view that that is not nearly so much fun. )

Comet Tails

I’m afraid that while you may pick up Comet PanSTARRS in binoculars this month, it will be much easier to follow in a small telescope. I suspect the highlight of the month will come April 4th when the comet, just a matter of a few light minutes from Earth, will appear to pass the Great Andromeda Galaxy (M31) – a whopping 2.5 million light years away.  (Actually, it will be quite close to the galaxy during the entire first week of April.) However, while you should be able to pick up this encounter in binoculars –  both galaxy and comet in the same field of view – it will be a more pleasing sight in a small, low-powered, telescope. Even then, both the comet and the galaxy will be competing with the thick atmosphere, low on the northwestern horizon, not to mention evening twilight.  (Pictures will make both appear brighter because of the sensitivity of long exposures. )

Click image for a much larger version of this chart. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Don’t expect a tail any thing like this long – but you should detect an elongation of the comet in the general direction the tail depicted here is pointing.  M31 should be both bigger and brighter than the comet. Click image for a much larger version of this chart. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Click this link for a version of this chart suitable for printing: comet

As a guide I suggest you wait until an hour after sunset, then scan about 10 degrees (one fist) above the northwestern horizon for the pair. The familiar “W” of Cassiopeia can also help. Use the lower half of this bright asterism as an arrowhead pointing you towards magnitude 2 Mirach.  That will help get you in the right vicinity – not an easy task when you are competing with the twilight. However, even 90 minutes after sunset – when it should be completely dark – this pair will still be more than 6  degrees above the horizon.  Whether you see it or not, I suggest you check Spaceweather.com for the latest photographs because you can be sure some enterprising amateur astronomers will capture the scene.

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