Drive a spike to Spica – and Saturn – in springtime 2012 A Pacific front is expected here by Monday! With the last quarter moon rising much later, darker nights and maybe a few clear nights, we might have a chance to observe, this third week of April....
Saturn (magnitude +0.2, in Virgo) It rises in twilight and glows highest in the south around 1 a.m. Shining 5° to its right is Spica: fainter, bluer, and twinklier. Watch for a temporary brightening of the rings with respect to the globe. This happens because the solid particles making up the rings backscatter sunlight (reflect it back in the direction it came from). Saturn is at opposition, opposite the Sun this Sunday, April 15. It rises around sunset, shines highest in the middle of the night, and sets around sunrise.
MARS (magnitude –0.4) shines fire-orange in Leo. Regulus is 4° to Mars's right in early evening, and fainter Gamma Leonis is 7° above it. Look for them high in the south. Mars ends its retrograde (westward) motion for the year and resumes heading east against the background stars. Watch it pull away from Regulus in the coming weeks: slowly at first, then faster.
By the end of the week, Saturday, our New Moon rises (exact at 3:18 a.m. EDT on the 21st).
The unpredictable Lyrid meteor shower should reach maximum activity in the hours before dawn Sunday morning. There will be no Moon. Expect the shower to peak on April 21-22; a nearly-new moon on those dates will provide perfect dark-sky conditions for meteor watching. Usually the shower is mild (10-20 meteors per hour) but unmapped filaments of dust in the comet's tail sometimes trigger outbursts 10 times stronger.
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