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.
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.
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.
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.
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.