Smallest planet Mercury at its best for the year

The maps show the sky at midnight BST on the 1st, 23:00 on the 16th and 22:00 on 30th. (Click on map to enlarge)

The maps show the sky at midnight BST on the 1st, 23:00 on the 16th and 22:00 on 30th. (Click on map to enlarge)

It is surprising just how quickly our evening sky changes during April. If we look to the south-west as the twilight fades tonight, the foremost winter constellation of Orion stands well clear of the horizon, with Sirius sparkling to his left and Taurus and the Pleiades to the right, almost due west. By the month’s end, though, Orion has all-but-set as nautical twilight ends in the evening and only Betelgeuse at Orion’s shoulder remains (barely) in view, as shown by our monthly star chart. Taurus is setting, too, and Sirius has already gone.

Jupiter remains a striking object which is ideally placed for study in our evening sky as it slips westwards in the southern part of Leo, some 14° below and to the left of Regulus. Having stood at opposition, directly opposite the Sun, on March 8, the giant planet is unmistakable in the south-east at nightfall at present and passes 41° high in the S only thirty minutes before our map times.

Those maps have the Plough overhead, dragged out and distorted by the map projection used, while Virgo and the star Spica are nearing the meridian to the left of Jupiter. Spilling northwards from Virgo into the constellation of Coma Berenices is a region sometimes called the Realm of the Galaxies. This includes the Virgo cluster of well over 1,000 galaxies whose core lies some 54 million light years away and is roughly coincident with the “D” of “Denebola” on the chart.

More than a dozen of these Virgo galaxies are visible through medium-sizes telescopes and have entries in Charles Messier’s 18th century list of comet-like smudges in the sky. While it is impractical to plot their locations on our chart, a Web search and dark moonless skies over the next fortnight should allow some to be spotted.

The Sun climbs more than 10° northwards during April as sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change from 06:42/19:52 BST on the 1st to 05:30/20:51 on the 30th. New moon on the 7th is followed by first quarter on the 14th, full moon on the 22nd and last quarter on the 30th.

This month, Jupiter recedes from 676 million to 723 million km, dims only slightly from magnitude -2.4 to -2.3 and shrinks in diameter from 44 to 41 arcseconds. Binoculars show its four main moons and also show Jupiter passing only 7 arcminutes (one quarter of a Moon-breadth) above-left of the magnitude 4.6 star Chi Leonis on the 8th.

Jupiter loses its status as our sole evening planet this month. One of its usurpers is Mars which, as we’ll see, rises before midnight later in the period. The other is Mercury which emerges from the Sun’s glare over the coming week at the start of its best evening apparition of the year.

By the evening of the 8th, Mercury shines brightly at magnitude -0.9 and stands almost 8° high in the west-north-west 40 minutes after sunset. The very young crescent Moon, only 3% illuminated and brightly earthlit, lies 6° to its left but we will need a clear horizon, and perhaps even binoculars, to pick them out of the twilight. On the next evening, Mercury is 17° below-right of the still-spectacular earthlit Moon while, on the 10th, the Moon stands against the V-shaped Hyades star cluster in Taurus and sets as it draws close to the bright star Aldebaran.

As the Moon continues onwards, eventually to shine alongside Regulus on the 16th and Jupiter on the 17th, Mercury climbs to stand furthest east of the Sun (20°) on the 18th. By then, the innermost and smallest planet is 11° high 40 minutes after sunset and sets itself more than 90 minutes later still. It is fainter, though, at magnitude 0.2 and it dims further to magnitude 1.5 by the 25th when it is 2° lower and 7° below-right of the Pleiades. As Mercury dives towards the Sun’s near side, it is heading for a spectacular transit across the Sun’s face on May 9.

Mars is brightening rapidly as it draws closer to us on its way to opposition on May 22. It rises in the south-east about one hour after our chart times and from the 21st onwards rises before midnight as seen from Edinburgh. The best time to see it, though, is just before dawn when it reaches its highest point, admittedly only low down in the south. At magnitude -0.5 it is already the brightest object (after the Moon) down there, and by the month’s end it is more than twice as bright at magnitude -1.4.

Mars is currently in Scorpius, 6° north-north-west of the red supergiant star Antares, but it tracks 1.5° eastwards to a stationary point in Ophiuchus on the 17th before doubling back into Scorpius. Meantime, it approaches from 118 million to 87 million km and its disk swells from 12 to 16 arcseconds wide. Telescopes should reveal some markings on it desert surface, and perhaps its northern polar cap, but its low altitude is likely to make for poor observing conditions.

Not far to Mars’ left, and another victim of its low altitude, is the glorious ringed world Saturn. The second brightest object low in the south before dawn, it improves from magnitude 0.4 to 0.2 as it edges 1° westwards in Ophiuchus. Saturn lies almost 1,400 million km away in mid-April when its rotation-flattened disk is 18 arcseconds across and the rings span 40 arcseconds, their north face tipped 26° earthwards.

The Moon stands 4° above Mars before dawn on the 25th and a similar distance above-left of Saturn on the next morning.

Alan Pickup

This is a slightly-revised version of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on April 1st 2016, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.