A New Moon this week darkens the sky, allowing night sky observers a chance to see the Lyrids meteor shower and view a pretty Crescent Moon near Venus.
Wednesday, April 22 pre-dawn – Lyrids meteor shower peak
The annual Lyrids meteor shower, derived from particles dropped by comet C/1861 G1 (Thatcher), runs from April 16 to 28, and will peak in intensity around 18:00 GMT on Wednesday, April 22. The best viewing time will be between midnight and dawn on Wednesday, with fewer meteors on the mornings before and after. The meteors will streak away from a point in the sky (the shower’s radiant) near the bright star Vega, which will be high in the eastern sky before dawn. The Lyrids can produce up to 18 meteors per hour, with occasional fireballs. A nearly New Moon will leave the skies nice and dark for this year’s shower.
Thursday, April 23 at 2:26 GMT – New Moon
At its new phase on Thursday, April 23 at 2:26 GMT, the Moon will be travelling between the Earth and the Sun. Since sunlight is only shining on the side of the moon aimed away from us, and the Moon is in the same region of the sky as the sun, the Moon is hidden from view everywhere on Earth for about a day.
Friday, April 24 all night – Whirlpool and Pinwheel Galaxies
On evenings during April, the Big Dipper is high in the northeastern sky. The bright star Alkaid marks the bottom tip of the dipper’s handle. Two impressive galaxies can be seen near that star in binoculars (red circle) and backyard telescopes under dark sky conditions.
The Pinwheel Galaxy, a spectacular, large face-on spiral galaxy also designated as Messier 101 sits a palm’s width to the left (or 5.5 degrees to celestial north) of Alkaid, forming an equilateral triangle with Alkaid and Mizar, the double star where the handle bends. This relatively close galaxy (21 million light-years away) is nearly as large as the Full Moon in the sky — but with the galaxy’s light spread over such a large area, its overall brightness is low.
If you search the sky 3.5 degrees to the upper right of Alkaid, you will come to the iconic spiral Whirlpool Galaxy, aka Messier 51. This galaxy’s angular size is smaller, but it will appear brighter in your binoculars and telescope (inset). M51 has a secondary galaxy core designated NGC5195 right beside it — linked by a bridge of material.
Sunday, April 26 evening – Crescent Moon meets Venus
In the western sky after dusk on Sunday, April 26, the thin, waxing Crescent Moon will make a pretty sight when it sits a palm’s width to the left (or 6 degrees to the celestial south) of Venus. The Moon and the planet will make a pretty wide-field photograph. On the nights before and after, the Moon will also be there — but lower and higher than Venus, respectively.
Chris Vaughan is a science writer, geophysicist, astronomer, planetary scientist and an “outreach RASCal.” He writes Astronomy Skylights, and you can follow him on Twitter at @astrogeoguy. He can also bring his Digital Starlab portable inflatable planetarium to your school or other daytime or evening event. Contact him through AstroGeo.ca to tour the universe together.