In 1833, when Abraham Lincoln was a young attorney, the US experienced a massive meteor shower that many took to be the end of the world. But the young Lincoln looked up and saw the familiar stars of the sky and took confidence the world would go on.
Today, as our routines are upset by the coronavirus pandemic, we can still look to the night sky and see that in a broader context all will go on. We can take advantage of our stay at home to spend some time outdoors looking at the sky. The decreased air pollution and reduced air traffic that has come with the pandemic allows for clearer skies, although we will still experience light pollution.
In the evening, the planet Venus will dominate the western sky. This bright, white light is less likely to be mistaken for an aircraft these days because there are so many fewer aircraft in the sky.
Venus will continue to dominate the evening sky throughout the month of May and June. It will be joined by the crescent moon around April 26 and again on May 25 when Mercury also joins it in the evening sky. Although you generally have to wait until sunset to see it, Venus is actually visible in broad daylight if you know exactly where to look for it. As it gets dark, looking overhead you will see a pair of stars in Gemini, the zodiac constellation of the twins. Venus is in the next door constellation of Taurus (the Bull). The zodiac is the band of constellations the sun and planets are viewed against as the year progresses. Most have heard of the zodiac through astrology, but here we are talking about astronomy. Going west toward the sunset, there is Taurus, and below it the well-known constellation of Orion. Catch it before it gets too close to the sun as the season progresses.
In the upper left of the Orion constellation is Betelgeuse. It is a red giant variable star that changes brightness on an irregular, unpredictable schedule. It is so large that if it were placed where our sun is, Earth would be orbiting inside it. Earlier this year it was as dim as it has been in 40 years, though it has started to brighten noticeably now. You can look for this in the southwest as the sky gets dark after sunset. Now Betelgeuse is approaching the brightness of Rigel. The three belt stars are unmistakable in the southwest.
Straight south of Betelgeuse you will see the bright white star Sirius. Though not as bright Venus, Sirius is visually the brightest nighttime star in Earth’s sky. The Egyptians called it the “Dog Star.”
In the April morning sky you will find the planets Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. You have to look right before sunrise while it is still dark low in the southeast. Jupiter will also look like a landing light, and nearby will be the bright planets Mars and Saturn in a pair. Mercury will swing closer to the sun and then into the evening sky in May, but Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will remain close together throughout the year, and by the fall will be in the evening sky.
During normal park operations, we at the Analemma Society host Friday Night Public Sessions at Turner Farm as volunteers to the Fairfax County Park Authority. These programs have been temporarily canceled due to the coronavirus, but we hope to resume at a later date. Our status can be found at www.analemma.org. These events are free to attend, and there is public parking.
There are four telescopes in the Roll-top Observatory, which is the first building on your left as you follow the sidewalk into the park. As you approach, you will see the RATO observatory ahead of you, a square tower with a dome on top. Sometimes telescopes are set up outside as well, and we thank members of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC) who also volunteer at the park.
In the observatory, there is a classroom where we show slides of what is visible that night. We update this presentation monthly. Through the double doors is the telescope room with four telescope positions.
We hope you make it to the park when we are able to open again. In the fall, we will have a wonderful view of the outer planets from Mars to Neptune. In addition, our Park Authority Parktakes programs are scheduled to resume with courses on telescopes, the moon, the Big Bang and other topics.
Author Jeff Kretsch works with the Analemma Society to present programming throughout the year at Observatory Park at Turner Farm. He also provided the photographs for this article.