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April Night Sky

April night sky

April 2009 Night Sky

—Charlie Christmann

Station Dodges Bullets

It was an event that has only happened five times in the history of the International Space Station. For about eleven minutes on March 12, astronauts on the station battened down the hatches and evacuated to the Soyuz escape vehicle, waiting for a possible collision with space junk.

A piece of an old satellite booster, only five to six inches across, was the culprit. While the space junk missed the station by more than 2.5 miles, it was too close for NASA’s comfort. Even small pieces of metal such as screws, and even paint chips, can cause major damage when colliding at orbital speeds. Space debris of any appreciable size, traveling at more than seventeen thousand miles per hour, colliding with the station is going to make a hole— not a good idea for any space vehicle trying to maintain air pressure. This six-inch piece of junk could have hit the space station with the equivalent force of a VW beetle traveling at fifty mph.

After the recent collision between the U.S. and Russian satellites, the probability of space craft being damaged by junk has increased. The station is safe for now, being in a lower orbit than the debris field. Over time, as the junk de-orbits, that could change.

Good Bye Winter Stars
The winter constellations are exiting the sky as the spring season takes hold. The bright stars of Orion are low in the west by 9:00 p.m. Sirius can be found low in the southwest. Capella, Pollux, and Procyon are a bit higher in the night sky.

But, as the winter stars depart, the summer stars begin to appear in the east. Look for Vega, in the constellation Lyra, at 9:00 p.m. low in the northeast; Arcturus, a part of Bootes, in the east; and Spica, in Virgo in the southwest. Vega is the lead stellar component of the Summer Triangle that will be overhead by mid-summer.

At twenty-three light-years away, Vega is the fifth brightest star in the night sky. And due to the Earth’s polar wobble, Vega was the North Pole star around 12,000 B.C. It will be in that position again about 14,000 A.D.

Arcturus is the third brightest star in the sky. Being a bloated red giant, it is nearing the end of its life. Arcturus is 43.9 light years (11.3 parsecs) from Earth and should cause no harm when it expires. This star is moving relatively quickly compared to our solar system, 122 miles per second. It is now about as close as it will be to Earth.

At 260 light-years away, Spica is still bright enough to be number fifteen in our sky. This star’s brightness varies between +0.92 and +1.04 in magnitude over a period of 4.01 days.

The Planets and the Moon
Mercury will rise behind the Sun this week and will not be visible until mid-month. The planet will be farthest from the Sun on the 26th.

Venus becomes a morning star, but will not be easily observable until the last half of the month. On Earth day, the 22nd, look for the left side of the crescent Moon to slide in front of Venus. Start watching about 5:45 a.m. You’ll need binoculars.

Mars rises about forty-five minutes ahead of the Sun.

Look for Jupiter rising in the east after 2 a.m. The Moon joins Jupiter on the 19th.

Saturn is high in the southeast at sunset. There is a Saturn-Moon conjunction on the 6th.

Uranus almost overlaps Mars on the 15th of this month. If you are feeling lucky, try and find this elusive planet.

The Moon reaches perigee (closest to Earth) on April Fool’s day and the 28th. It is at apogee (farthest from Earth) on the 16th. The Moon will be full at 8:56 a.m. on the 9th and new at 9:23 p.m. on the 24th.

Easter is the first Sunday after the first full Moon after the Vernal Equinox. That just happens to be April 12 this year.

 

     

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