Sky Watch

A Very Bright Idea: Venus, Saturn, Jupiter Show Off

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 1, 2007; Page C02

With apologies to Tinker, Evers and Chance, April features a cosmic double-play combination: Venus to Saturn to Jupiter.

The nights of April start with Venus ready to play. Find Venus by looking west at dusk. This effervescent planet has a negative fourth magnitude (ultra-bright) glow, making it the brightest object aside from the sun and the moon. It shimmies below the lovely ladies of Pleiades (Messier 45) on the evening of April 11.

Forget television and steal a moment for yourself April 19 and 20: The sliver of a new moon dances below Venus on April 19, and a slightly larger sliver dances above Venus the next night.

When evening falls, Saturn is high in the southeastern sky, loitering between the constellations Leo and Cancer. The ringed planet -- and enjoy those rings now -- has lots of night ahead. It crosses the meridian about 10 p.m. and sets about 5 a.m. early in the month. Later in the month, it sets about 4 a.m.

Saturn is zero magnitude, which means it is visible even from well-lighted urban locations. Those magnificent rings are wide open now and, from our perspective, they will begin to shut. The rings will appear edge-on, invisible to us, in 2009.

Early-morning sky gazers will enjoy finding Jupiter. The large, gaseous planet rises in the east-southeast well after midnight and can be seen high in the south at dawn now. This negative second magnitude (very bright) object is snuggled to the west of Sagittarius and south of Ophiuchus.

If you see streaks of meteors crossing the heavens in mid-April, you're watching the Lyrid meteors. These meteors are likely to be viewed between April 16 and 25. There are not very many of them, and they peak April 22, when it is dark in Europe and it will be afternoon here. Nevertheless, try looking.

Down-to-Earth Events

April 5 -- Astronomer Marc Pound discusses "The Story of the Horsehead" at the University of Maryland Observatory's open house in College Park. See the heavens through a telescope afterward, weather permitting. 8 p.m. Information: 301-405-6555; http://www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

April 7 -- Learn about telescopes at Family Day at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, near Dulles Airport. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free; parking is $12. Information: http://www.nasm.si.edu/udvarhazy; 202-633-1000.

April 14 -- Frank Summers, astrophysicist with the Space Telescope Science Institute, on "From Simulation to Visualization: Astrophysics Goes Hollywood" at the National Capital Astronomers meeting at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 7:30 p.m. Information: http://www.capitalastronomers.org.

April 17 -- Elizabeth P. Turtle, planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University, presents a lecture, "Exploring the Surface of Titan With Cassini-Huygens," at 8 p.m. at the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, National Air and Space Museum. Beforehand, attend a free showing of the film "Cosmic Voyage" at 6:30 p.m. and meet the lecturer at 7:30 p.m. Information: 202-633-1000; http://www.nasm.si.edu.

April 20 -- Astronomer Lisa Winter on "The Milky Way: A Tour of Our Galaxy," at the University of Maryland Observatory's open house in College Park. 8 p.m. Information: 301-405-6555; http://www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

April 21 -- Find out how America's native peoples used the heavens in a special joint presentation with the National Museum of the American Indian at "Explore the Universe," a Family Day event, at the National Air and Space Museum. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with another session at 1 p.m. at the American Indian museum. Information: 202-633-1000; http://www.nasm.si.edu.

April 21 -- Astronomy Day, hosted by the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, at Sky Meadows State Park near Paris, Va. Enjoy solar observing through safe filters, and after sundown, peek through telescopes for the stars and planets. 3 to 11 p.m., rain or shine. Parking fee. Information: http://www.novac.com.

Blaine Friedlander can be reached at postskywatch@aol.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company