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The Night Sky Tonight: April 28 – May 6

By Mark Wagner

Friday, April 28
M51 is a serious challenge from suburban locations, but if you can get to a darker site (this is New Moon weekend, take a drive!) you'll be treated to a terrific galaxy. M51 is called the Whirlpool and consists of two interacting galaxies, as visible in this sketch by Roger Ivester. You can hop to M51 off the handle of the Big Dipper, heading toward alpha (A) Canum Venaticorum. M51 is 9.8 arc-minutes in size, and a deceptive magnitude 8.94. Since its light is spread out over a large surface area, the galaxy appears much dimmer than its magnitude suggests. About 25M light years distant, it is part of the Coma-Sculptor cloud of galaxies. Get out your telescope and give it a whirl!

Skill Level: Intermediate

Suggested Gear: Orion SkyQuest XT10i IntelliScope Dobsonian Telescope, Orion SkyView Pro 8" Equatorial Reflector Telescope

Tomorrow Morning: What's Around Double Star 52 Cygni?

Saturday, April 29
52 Cygni is a fine binary star along the western wing of the constellation Cygnus the swan. It is a good target for telescopes, with a separation of 6 arc-seconds, and divergent magnitudes of 4.22 and 9.5. Its position along the swan's wing makes it easy to find. It is one of the finest colored doubles, with an orange primary and blue companion. Deep sky aficionados know 52 Cygni for a deeper reason, though. The Veil Nebula has a famous wisp that passes right through this double star. The wisp is known as The Witch's Broom. If you can find 52 Cygni, you can find the Veil Nebula. With a narrowband filter (Orion's Ultrablock), this section of the Veil is marginally visible even in suburban skies. But try it from a darker site!

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope, 1.25" Orion UltraBlock NarrowBand Filter

Tomorrow Evening: Jupiter On The Move

Sunday, April 30
Have you noticed the motion of Jupiter during the month of April? On the 7th it was only less than 1/3rd degree from Theta Virginis. Its westward motion has created a 3 degree separation tonight. By the end of May, Jupiter will have moved more than 5 degrees west of Theta, where it will slow to an apparent standstill before it begins rapidly tracking eastward again. Who would like to explain how this happens?

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion AstroView 90mm Equatorial Refractor Telescope, Orion Star Target Planisphere, 30-50 degree

Tomorrow Morning: Deep Sky In Cygnus

Monday, May 1
NGC 6826 in Cygnus is known as the Blinking Planetary. This is a fun optical illusion that anyone can experience. First find the bright star Theta in Cygnus' western wing. Less than one degree north, find 16 Cygni, a binary of two Sun-like yellow stars separated by 40 arc-seconds, 70 light years distant. Center 16 Cygni and let your telescope drift for 30 seconds. You'll find the Blinking Planetary centered! Look intently at the central star, and the halo of the planetary seems to disappear. Look off-axis at the halo, and the central star disappears. Blink! Why does it do that? You can see the central star in the square inset for Jeremey Perez's nice sketch.

Skill Level: Intermediate

Suggested Gear: Orion SkyQuest XT8i IntelliScope Dobsonian Telescope, Orion StarSeeker IV 150mm GoTo Reflector Telescope

Tomorrow Evening: First Quarter Moon

Tuesday, May 2
Tonight is First Quarter Moon, located in the constellation Cancer. Grab your binoculars for nice views of Mare Serenitatis, Mare Tranquillitatis, Mare Fecunditatis, Mare Nectaris, and Mare Crisium. There are two other Mare visible (labeled with a question mark), what are they? Other large lava plains are visible as well, named Lacus and Sinus. Can you name any that are visible tonight? If you are using a telescope, the two craters Aristoteles and Eudoxus are wonderfully placed tonight near the Terminator, give them a shot!

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion 15x70 Astronomy Binoculars with Tripod Adapter, Orion MoonMap 260

Tomorrow Morning: Beautiful Alberio

Wednesday, May 3
Alberio, or Beta Cygni (B) is considered perhaps the finest colored double star in the sky. Find it as the head of Cygnus, the Swan, or the bottom of the Northern Cross. It is also located near the middle of the Summer Triangle, comprised of Deneb, Vega and Altair. Alberio sits 386 light years away, consisting of a magnitude 3.1 yellow/gold primary star, and sapphire blue companion, separated by 35 minutes of arc. The cooler are indeed beautiful, and interestingly, not everyone sees the same colors! What do you see?

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion SpaceProbe 130ST Equatorial Reflector Telescope, Orion Observer 70mm Equatorial Refractor Telescope

Tomorrow Evening: Goodbye to Winter

Thursday, May 4
With the Moon high in the south tonight, in the middle of spring, look to the western horizon and bid farewell to a few familiar winter sights. The constellations Orion and Taurus are low over the horizon, the Belt Stars lying nearly horizontal, red Betelgeuse above them, red Aldebaran a bit north along the horizon, offset by red Mars. In a few weeks, all will be gone, with Mars barely visible, gone, for another season. Get your telescopes out, tempus fugit!

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion Star Target Planisphere, 30-50 degree, Orion DeepMap 600 Folding Star Chart

Tomorrow Morning: Eta Aquarids Meteors

Friday, May 5
The Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower will be at its best Friday morning before dawn. Grab a lawn chair, warm drink, and bundle up to enjoy the pre-dawn show. The image at left shows the radiant, where the meteors appear to emanate from, above the horizon as the sky begins to brighten. There will be plenty of action before then, when the sky is darker. Just relax and watch toward the southeast. This meteor shower is the dust trail of Comet 1P Halley. The shower runs from April 19 through May 28, but tonight is the peak, when 10-20 meteors per hour can be expected, burning their way through Earth's atmosphere at 44 miles per second (148,000 MPH). Don't blink!

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion Star Target Planisphere, 30-50 degree, Lawn Chair, no telescope or binocular needed!

Tomorrow evening: Moon and Jupiter

Saturday, May 6
Tonight's darkening sky gives a nice gentle arc of Virgo's brightest star Spica 30 degrees above the southeastern horizon, Jupiter, almost 10 degrees above it, arcing to the west, and an 88% illuminated waxing gibbous Moon, 9.5 degrees further up, finishing this nice arc. There is plenty to see in these objects; Spica is a challenging double star to split, Jupiter's Great Red Spot is just turning into view, and the Moon is never lacking in dramatic, detailed views. Even with a big Moon, there's plenty to see, so get out and enjoy the show!

Skill Level: Beginner

Suggested Gear: Orion SpaceProbe 130 EQ Reflector Telescope, Orion StarSeek iPhone App (available on the App store!)

Tomorrow Morning: The Cygnus Milky Way - What We See.

Charts from Starry Night Pro, available from Orion Telescopes & Binoculars. M51 sketch from Roger Ivister. 52 Cygni, 16 Cygni and Alberio sketches from Jeremy Perez's Belt Of Venus Blog, using an Orion XT8. Data from Starry Night Pro 6 and Wikipedia.

Mark Wagner is a life-long astronomy enthusiast and deep sky observer in the San Francisco bay area. Visit our Facebook Page if you'd like to post comments, questions, sketches or images you've taken to our Night Sky Tonight post.