Our monthly guide for stargazers
◼ Venus is brilliant in the evening sky, wherever you are in the world, and passes in front of the Pleiades star cluster. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are all in the pre-dawn sky. A comet is brightening, and it is a good year for the Lyrid meteor shower. Here’s more of what you can see in the night sky in April 2020.
April’s star chart
Click on the image above for an interactive map of constellations visible in the sky. It can be adjusted for any time and date.
(For a map of the night sky in the southern hemisphere, click here.)
The planets in April 2020
The closest planet to the Sun rises before the Sun in the first half of April, but the angle of its orbit to the horizon means it will be too low to see from northern latitudes. The situation is very different from the southern hemisphere, where Mercury will be visible above the eastern horizon before dawn during the first two weeks of the month. Its elevation in pre-dawn twilight is as much as 15° at the start of April, and is still 10° or so during the second week. Mercury sinks back towards the Sun after this, as it heads towards superior conjunction, when it will lie on the far side of the Sun, on May 4. Read more about Mercury.
The second planet from the Sun, and our inner neighbour in the Solar System, continues to shine brilliantly in the evening sky. It stands high in the west as soon as the sky darkens at dusk from northern locations, and is lower in the evening sky, but still easily visible, from the southern hemisphere. The highlight of the current apparition of Venus comes on April 3 when the planet will lie in front of the famous and bright star cluster the Pleiades, commonly known as the Seven Sisters. The crescent Moon will lie close by on the 26th. Here’s more about the current apparition of Venus. Read more about Venus.
Mars is in the morning sky, and gradually distancing itself from the Sun, despite racing eastwards from day to day as it travels in its 687-day orbit. It brightens from magnitude 1 to magnitude 0.6 over the course of the month. Mars spends April in Capricornus. The red planet is still too far away to show any detail on its surface in a small telescope. See the waning crescent Moon pass close to Mars in the sky on April 16. Read our guide to Mars.
It is now easy to see Jupiter, in the morning sky, because it rises more than two and a half hours before the Sun from mid-northern latitudes at the start of April, and earlier still by month’s end. From these locations, such as the USA and Europe, Jupiter will remain low in the sky because it is currently in the southernmost zodiacal constellation of Sagittarius. If you are in the southern hemisphere, for example Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, or South America, Jupiter will be much higher in the sky, making it easier to observe as it shines at a bright magnitude -2.2. Even a small telescope will reveal the cloud belts on Jupiter and its four main moons, the Galilean satellites Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. The planet Saturn lies a little to the east of Jupiter, and the waning crescent Moon will lie close to both on April 15. Read more about planet Jupiter.
Saturn is another morning planet, shining at magnitude 0.7, and currently close to Jupiter in the sky. It, too, is in the constellation of Sagittarius, meaning that it will remain low in the sky from northern latitudes, but be high above the horizon from the southern hemisphere as local dawn approaches. Read more about Saturn.
The closer of the two ice giants in the Solar System is disappearing into the bright evening twilight this month before reaching conjunction, on the far side of the Sun, on April 26. It is therefore unobservable this month. Here’s where Uranus lies in the night sky. Read more about Uranus.
The outer ice giant, Neptune, passed through conjunction with the Sun last month and so is now in the morning sky, though to all practical purposes, too immersed in the dawn twilight to be observed by the amateur astronomer. Here’s where Neptune lies in the night sky. Read more about Neptune.
Comet ATLAS promises an evening treat
There is a comet in the sky that is brightening quite rapidy, as well as developing a tail, leading astronomers to believe that it could become a bright object in the evening sky in May.
The Comet, with the catchy name of C/2019 Y4 ATLAS, is approaching Earth and the Sun, and is now expected to be visible easily with the unaided eye in the western sky after dusk.
In March, the comet reached magnitude 8, which was far brighter than had been calculated, though this still limited visibility to binoculars or small telescopes. Photos showed it as a small green fuzzy ball in the constellation of Ursa Major.
You can find suitable binoculars from reputable makes, such as Celestron, Olympus and Orion, at Amazon. Here is a link to a choice of binoculars for readers in the USA, and here is a link to such binoculars if you want to buy in the UK.
It will be fascinating to see how the comet develops during April as it travels through neighbouring Camelopardalis towards Perseus. We have a full report with charts to help you find Comet ATLAS.
The Lyrid meteor shower
Conditions are excellent this year for observing the Lyrids, the first decent meteor shower since the Quadrantids in January. The Lyrid meteor shower is due to reach its peak on April 21st-22nd, which is just a day before New Moon. This means that unless you are locked down in a light-polluted area, you will hopefully be able to watch for shooting stars in reasonably dark skies. The peak rate for the Lyrids under ideal conditions is stated to be 18 an hour, and many are bright. We have a full guide to observing the Lyrid meteor shower in 2020.
The Moon always makes a great target for a small telescope, which come into view as its phases change. We’ve a guide to where to find 50 of the best lunar features, plus a checklist to download so you can tick them off as you spot them! Don’t have a telescope? Here’s our guide to choosing one.
Phases of the Moon
First Quarter: March 2
Full Moon: March 9
Last Quarter: March 16
New Moon: March 24
Fifty fantastic features – our amazing Moon
Here’s our guide to observing some of the finest sights on the Moon with small telescopes. Click here for pages of charts that will help you find interesting features to seek out yourself, including craters, lava flows, mountain ranges and deep chasms!
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