Spring Stars Bring A Fresh Perspective To April Nights

There they go! Orion and many of the winter constellations tilt westward in April as they beat an exit from the spring night sky. Bob King

April nights brings many new constellations into view as Sirius, Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades nod off in the west. That good old winter foursome remains one of my favorite sights. This time of year they’re all level with each another at the end of twilight, forming a gigantic asterism across the southwestern and western sky. Turning to face east, I see Leo, Hydra, Corvus, Virgo, Boötes and Corona Borealis filling the firmament with new possibilities.

Constellation figures are beautifully illustrated in Urania’s Mirror, a star atlas made in 1825. Perched on Hydra is Corvus the crow (below center). At far left is Noctua the owl, an obsolete constellation no longer recognized. Urania’s Mirror

Spring stars lack the brilliance of their winter neighbors, but have their own distinctive patterns. Two easy favorites are Corvus the crow and Corona Borealis the northern crown. Corvus struts along one of the coils of Hydra the water snake , the biggest constellation in the sky. If you like a challenge, start at Leo (high in south) and follow the twisty snake from west of Leo’s Sickle south and east to Corvus. Hydra isn’t a bad looking snake as far as constellations go, but it also reminds me of the winding creek near my home. I can step outside and look at Hydra at the same time listen to the creek hurrying down the hill to Lake Superior to spill much recently-melted snow.

This map shows the view facing south around 9:30-10 p.m. local time in early April. Stellarium

Hydra’s brightest star, Alphard, is an orange giant 50 times the size of the sun and 177 light years from Earth. If you look closely, you can tell its color. The name Alphard comes from the Arabic al-fard meaning “the solitary one,” a reference to it being the only bright star in that region of the sky. Follow the curve of the snake southeast and it will guide you to a little trapezoid of stars that outline Corvus the crow. The shape is so clear and distinct it’s hard to miss. Corvus first climbs into view around 9, but is much easier to see by 10 o’clock.

Corvus and the western half of Virgo, sometimes called the “Y,” show in the southeastern sky around 9:30 p.m. in early April. Bob King

Once you’ve spotted Corvus, finding Virgo’s brightest star Spica is a snap. Spica shines a little more than a fist to the left of the crow. Although single to the eye and in most telescopes, Spica is really two stars — a pair of massive suns 12,000 and 1,500 times as bright as our sun. They orbit each other so closely their mutual gravities have pulled them into the shape of eggs.

Arcturus is the brightest star in Boötes, shaped like a wide tie. Below and left of Arcturus look for Corona Borealis. Bob King

Face due east and you’ll be met with an eyeful of Arcturus, brightest star in Boötes the herdsman. You easily can find Arcturus anytime of year by following the arc or curve of the Big Dipper’s handle away from the bowl until you arrive at a brilliant orange star. Below Boötes look for another spring sky favorite, the semi-circle of Corona Borealis. It represents the jeweled crown of the mythological princess Ariadne of Crete. Others liken it to a wedding ring.

Old stars, new stars. Good thing the stars keep recycling up there, giving us all opportunities for that next clear night when we have free time to look.

4 Responses

  1. Edward Boll

    What is the deal? COBS has recorded a magnitude for 2017 T2 already at magnitude 9.2 with 77 magnification. Mistake, outburst or might this be a great comet yet?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Edward,
      I always take his estimates with a grain of salt. They’re typically 0.5 to 1 mag. brighter than what other comet observers see. Also T2 is very diffuse and very low in the west at twilight’s end. To make matters worse, it’s closing on the sun and will soon be lost in the solar glare.

Comments are closed.