It doesn’t get much better than April to find your way among the stars. The Big Dipper is high overhead throughout the month. Look northeast to find the distinctive pattern comprised of three “handle” stars and four that give shape to its “pan.”
Seems like everyone knows about the Big Dipper. It’s an asterism, a group of stars, within the larger constellation of Ursa Major, the Big Bear. Its handle is the bear’s tail, while the pan reaches into the beast’s chest. It’s a great tool to find a number of night sky objects. First, find the star furthest from the handle and at the bottom of the pan. Draw a line from that star through the star marking the top of the pan that is also furthest from the handle. That line will take you to Polaris, the North Star. It should be above Mt. Wrightson. Though sometimes thought to be the brightest star in the sky, Polaris is actually very run of the mill, but it will always point the way north. It is one of the handle stars of the Little Dipper, or Ursa Minor, the Little Bear.
Let’s go back to the Big Dipper. As noted, the handle consists of three stars. The one in the middle is Mizar. Focus binoculars on Mizar and you easily find that it is a double star, with the fainter Alcor alongside. The two stars are about 78 light years from Earth. They are forever bound, orbiting each other for eternity. Incredibly, using high powered instruments, it appears that the Mizar double is not just two, but five stars, a quintuple system, moving through space together.
Now, starting with Mizar, start a curving line, an arc, that heads to the outer edge of the handle and continue the arc until reaching one of the brightest stars in our night sky, Arcturas. It is the alpha star of the constellation Bootes, the Herdsman. To me, Bootes looks like a giant ice cream cone.
If you continue the arc through Arcturas, you’ll reach Spica, the only bright star in Virgo, one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac. Arcturas and Spica are two thirds of the Spring Triangle, teaming up with Denebola, the tail of Leo, The Lion. Leo sits high in the sky this month, almost directly south of the Big Dipper. Look for the “sickle” that forms its head.
Meanwhile, Jupiter and Saturn, are visible in the early morning hours. Jupiter will rise first in the southeastern sky with Saturn following it about an hour later. Both will move east to west.
With binoculars you can be a modern-day Galileo. In 1610, using a hand-held telescope, Galileo observed four moons orbiting Jupiter and marked their ever-changing positions. Now referred to as the Galilean moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto make for a great observing project. On any given day they may line up to one side of Jupiter. On another day some may be hidden by the planet, leaving, perhaps just one or two on either side. Compared to Jupiter’s other 75 moons, the Galilean moons are huge. Indeed, Ganymede is larger than the planet Mercury.
Saturn, though, is the real gem of the sky. Seeing its rings for the first time through a telescope brings an inevitable gasp. There are some things that are beautiful without explanation. We’ve all seen photographs of Saturn’s rings, but in real time it’s simply jaw dropping.
And, we should consider ourselves lucky because those rings, according to recent studies, have only been there for the past few hundred million years. If the solar system is roughly 4.5 billion years old, the rings are babies. Further, scientists believe that the rings will disappear, or fall into Saturn, within the next several hundred million years.
So, stay up late or wake up early. Or, pull an all-nighter. There’s plenty to see in the sky this month.
Editor’s note: Harold Meckler shares his love for the night sky in this column. He is the author of “Monsoon,” a novel about imagination, awe and self-discovery.