They may all officially belong to the winter sky, but Sirius, Orion’s Belt, the Hyades and Pleiades tilt over in the most appealing way every April. With Venus joining the scene, you can star hop from one to the next the way you might use stepping stones to cross a stream. Take a look in the west during evening twilight, and you’ll see what I mean.
Each “stone” is distinctive in its own right — Sirius (the brightest star in the sky); Orion’s Belt (a stand-out star pattern visible across the globe); the Hyades (bright star cluster and the closest one to Earth at just 153 light years); the Pleiades (the famed Seven Sisters star cluster shaped like a dipper) and Venus, brightest planet in the sky.
Two fists held at arm’s length separate Sirius from Orion’s Belt and Orion’s Belt from the Hyades. You can squeeze one fist between the Hyades and Pleiades and the Pleiades and Venus. There’s a rhythm or spacing to the pattern pleasing to the eye.
Watch for Venus and the Seven Sisters to draw closer and closer this week. From April 10-12 (Friday-Sunday), they’ll be just 2.5° apart and a wonderful sight together in binoculars.
There’s also a hidden pattern among the five objects relating to their distances. At 8.6 light years, Sirius is the 5th closest star system beyond the Sun. Orion’s Belt stars all lie much farther – between 800 and 1,000 light years away. With the Hyades, our gaze returns to the “neighborhood” 153 light years from Earth, recedes again to 444 light years with the Pleiades and returns to our own front yard with Venus, a mere 110 million miles from home.
Near-far-near-far-near. E-I-E-I-O! Anyone for a round of Old MacDonald Had a Farm?
While you’re out enjoying spring’s many rhythms, watch for the International Space Station (ISS). It’s making passes again over the U.S. and other countries during convenient evening viewing hours through late April. When brightest, the space station bests the planet Jupiter as it travels steadily (and unblinkingly) from west to east across the sky.
You can get viewing times and more information at Heavens Above (click on the ISS link), key in your zip code at Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page, have NASA alert you via e-mail or text message or download an app for your phone.
For the Duluth, northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin region, here are a few viewing times:
* Tonight April 5 from 8:40-45 p.m. you’ll see the ISS track across the southern sky
* Monday April 6 from 9:22-27 p.m. a brilliant high pass straight across the top of the sky
* Tuesday April 7 from 8:29-35 p.m. high in the south. Another brilliant pass.